Month: December 2010

The Universe in Miniature in Miniature (and the future of books)

As is well-documented, there’s been a lot of anxiety in recent years about “the future of the book.” Lately, that anxiety has focused on e-books and whether they’ll supplant traditional books as our preferred literary medium. Maybe they will, and maybe they won’t. But one thing’s certain: e-books can’t do the kinds of things that titles from Chicago-based Featherproof do. Scorch Atlas, for example, has the look of a book that’s been through hell and back. Daddy’s looks, at first glance, like a fishing tackle box. And Patrick Somerville’s The Universe in Miniature in Miniature can, if the reader is ready, willing, and able, be converted into a working model of the solar system (see diagrams below!). You just can’t do that with an e-book no matter how hard you try. Yes, these titles are available in e-formats, but half the fun of owning them is just plain looking at them — or “accidentally” leaving them out on your coffee table for your guests to admire and enjoy. To put it another way, these books are cool.

The other half of the fun inherent in Featherproof’s titles, needless to say, is reading them. As reported in an earlier post, Christian Tebordo’s The Awful Possibilities is a mind-bending roller-coaster ride of a read, and Patrick Somerville’s aforementioned The Universe in Miniature in Miniature follows in the same vein. Indeed, the works in Somerville’s collection display a colossal range of imagination and emotional depth. He is an author who is as comfortable depicting the end of the world (as in the apocalyptic “No Sun,” which sees the Earth stop in its tracks without cause or explanation) as he is following the burgeoning passions of a teenage girl (as in the coming-of-age tale “The Wildlife Biologist”).

Significantly, Somerville is also funny, as initially evidenced by the book’s dedication to Slartibartfast (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) and borne out through subsequent tales of wayward, incompetent aliens, grad students in unaccredited MFA programs, and a balding man desperately seeking matriculation into an overseas institution known only as Hair University. The humor in all of these situations is, of course, balanced with pathos, underscoring the exquisite ambivalence of the human condition in ways reminiscent of both Kurt Vonnegut and Woody Allen. Our struggle for happiness, these stories suggest, will always be undercut by our tendency to screw things up, yet it’s our tendency to screw things up which, ironically, makes us keep trying (and failing, and trying again) and, not coincidentally, also makes us human. We are flawed, and we are beautiful, and we are funny. Patrick Somerville sees all of it (and then some), and reports lovingly on our shared humanity throughout The Universe in Miniature in Miniature. It is, in short, an amazing collection of stories.

Most likely, we’ll be debating the future of the book until the Earth does, in fact, stop in its tracks, but as long as small presses like Featherproof — which is to say, people who care deeply not only about storytelling but about books themselves, the very experience of reading a book, the thrill of regarding a book as more than a medium for conveying information but as a work of art in and of itself — have anything to say about it, the printed word will continue to thrive. If you or someone you know is a book lover, do yourself a favor and check out this wonderful press.

Build your own solar system with Patrick Somerville's THE UNIVERSE IN MINIATURE IN MINIATURE!

Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century

John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the book industry. Throughout the volume, Thompson walks the reader through the major phenomena that have turned publishing into the uber-peculiar institution that it has become — namely, the proliferation of massive retail chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, the rise of literary agents in the wake of (of all things!) William Safire’s Before the Fall, and the emergence of massive publishing conglomerates. Additionally, Thompson explains the inner workings of several larger and small publishers to give the reader a sense of how books eventually (and, in most cases, improbably) get into the hands of consumers, and he also pays considerable attention to the ways in which e-books have changed the playing field for everyone in the business. The prose is dry, and the book is as thick as a telephone directory, but anyone who, like myself, is fascinated with publishing will find no end of insight in this meticulously researched volume. In fact, I went so far as telling a friend of mine who chairs a graduate program in publishing and editing that if the students in his program aren’t reading this book, they’re not getting the education they’ve paid for. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you want to understand the publishing industry, read this book.

Poof!

I fell in love with Poof!, the graphic novel by Line Gamache, when the heroine’s dog Kiki mistook an umbilical cord for a chain of sausage links. Before this point, of course, I certainly liked the book (even like-liked it, as we used to say in grammar school) for many reasons: a talking dog, an imaginative plot, and surreal artwork being chief among them. But it was the umbilical cord — and the author/artist’s fearless efforts to “go there” — that ultimately won me over.

The plot of Poof! revolves around a loss of inspiration. Or perhaps “loss” isn’t the right word, as protagonist Lily’s inspiration (curiously named “Hildie”) leaps from her throat after a bout of what at first glance appeared to be a stomach bug. When Hildie hops a train bound for La-la Land, Lily has no choice but to follow. The result is a madcap chase through the¬† wilds of Gamache’s imagination — part Picasso, part Yellow Submarine — including (but not limited to) a ride in a hot-air balloon with a pair of giant mice and a brief commute with a pair of sad circus clowns in a tractor-trailer.

The irony of all of this, of course, is that for a book on the loss of inspiration, Poof! may well be the most imaginative graphic novel I’ve read in ages.

Cut Through the Bone

Ethel Rohan’s collection of short-shorts, Cut Through the Bone offers a haunting vision of life in contemporary society. The collection opens with a slice-of-life vignette in which a widow turns a helium balloon into a substitute for her deceased husband, knowing all the while that the relationship will not only be largely one-sided but also painfully brief. The combination of longing, loneliness, and curiously off-kilter melancholy of this opening piece sets the tone for the remainder of the collection. Throughout the proceedings, we meet a host of broken yet ultimately (even incongruously) hopeful characters: the little girl who dresses in the clothes of her disappeared mother, the couple who meets for a drink as they dissolve their partnership, the cashier with an interminable case of the dropsies. In many ways, the book is about loneliness, yet at the same time, it’s also about the yearning for companionship that makes us human — our natural tendency to call out to the ghosts of friends and lovers, lives and limbs gone by. Indeed, each vignette in Cut Through the Bone reads like a finely-wrought piece of filigree yet carries the emotional weight of a work etched in stone.