Step Aside, Pops: A Hark! A Vagrant Collection by Kate Beaton
Drawn and Quarterly, 2015
Kate Beaton, of course, is super awesome and funny. Her gag-strip humor range? Black Canary making friends with a heavy metal singer. Alexander Pushkin enters a cat show. The emotional fallout for a nasty boy called out in Janet Jackson’s Nasty Boys music video. Wuthering Heights jokes. Ida B. Wells. Hard as nails lady Victorian bicyclists. Extra bonus for book nerds: her strips riffing on Nancy Drew and Edward Gorey book covers.
One D.O.A. One on the Way [a novel] by Mary Robison. Counterpoint, 2009. 9781582435619. 166pp
I don’t read much literary fiction, but what I do read is usually recommended to me by my friend Wally or my favorite bookseller at Third Place Books. This is one of the latter. His pitch went something like this: Mary Robison is a fantastic writer. A while back she had a severe case of writer’s block she cured by writing on index cards. She jots down sentences and scenes and just bits that reveal character and then, when she has enough, arranges them until they form some sort of narrative. He showed me a few pages of the book, written in small bits as he’d described. I was hooked. (He may have also told me she now writes in her car, but I heard Nicholson Baker say that he does that, too, so I’m not sure about this. I’m also not sure how much of this I’m remembering wrong, so I’m not putting quotes around the pitch or telling you his name.)
The story that slowly reveals itself is about a location scout living in post-Katrina New Orleans. She’s married to one of two twins, and having an affair with the other, as she tries to train a new assistant. It’s full of sentences and descriptions so full of craft that they stopped me cold — I’d often put the book down and walk away for a few moments before sitting down again and reading them again.
The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman
Austin therapist Victoria Vick gets a strange new client, Y_____, who initially is only willing to speak to her over the phone, though he eventually comes to her office. He can make himself invisible thanks to military technology stolen from a former workplace. His odd demands increase and his stories become more and more disturbing. He uses this ability to spy on strangers in their homes. And he thinks he can find out some vitally important information about humanity by seeing how people act when they think they are alone. But he often intervenes, unseen, in destructive ways.
Y____’s voice perfectly captures the sort of creepy narcissistic mansplainer that you suspect could quickly escalate to dangerous behavior. (Ladies, I’m betting you know what I’m talking about.) Klosterman includes pop culture and music in his descriptions in a way that’s really satisfying rather than annoying and dated: Y_____ misremembers singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston’s name at a critical part of one of his stories and is corrected in his therapist’s notes, though she doesn’t dare correct him in person.
It feels strange to write, “Read this book! It’s unsettling in a very well-crafted and realistic way!” but here I am, telling you just that. And I want to add that I loved the mashup of literary fiction and superpowers in the same way I like really well done character exploration in superhero books. (For more literary superpowers check out Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff, Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales)