Review: We'll Always Have Paris by Jennifer Coburn

I don't get to travel very much, and so travel books are the way I get to live vicariously through others. I've never read Jennifer Coburn before so I literally just stumbled across the book on the shelf and I read the back of the book just based on the title. I'm a sucker for a book about Paris.

The book details a series of trips that Coburn took with her daughter Katie over a period of years starting when she was young. Coburn always believed that she would die at a young age - she discusses that and her relationship with her father and other issues in the course of the book, which is ultimately as much about that aspect of her life as it is about traveling, about the experience of travel, and about learning about her child through these experiences.

Coburn manages to convey the romance and the excitement and the awe of travel in a way that I could ultimately relate to. Having said that she never shies away from her own shortcomings or failings or how she gets sick almost every trip and while delirious and puking, thinks that this was all a horrible idea and she never should have come.

It helps that her daughter comes off as the greatest travel companion ever and an easy-going child who must be the envy of most adults. There's a scene early on where Coburn describes the arrival of a hamburger at a cafe in Paris, which is topped with a sunny side up egg. The eight year old shrugs and eats it. Later she's wearing a pink beret around Paris and sketching at the museums and honestly just comes across as a lot of fun. (Truthfully if all children were like her, more people would probably have kids).

In the end the book's main shortcoming is that the memoir sections of Coburn's youth, her relationship with her father, while insightful and thoughtful, in some ways felt like a different book. Reading it, I understood why it was there, I understood the relationship between the two sections of the book, structurally it made sense, but I didn't feel it. I honestly just enjoyed and was engaged much more with the "present" as Coburn is traveling and dealing with her daughter.

Over all, though, the book was a joy.

Articles Published the Week of May 8th

Phoebe and Her Unicorn is funny, fantastical, and for creator Dana Simpson, personal.

I think Dana Simpson is making one of the best comic strips currently running. Phoebe and Her Unicorn is genius, quite simply. It's wild and fantastical. It's a strip that a lot of people have compared to Calvin and Hobbes - instead of a boy and a tiger it's a girl and a unicorn - but that doesn't get at the many elements of the strip, the ways that Dana balances them, the inspired mix of the mundane and fantastic, and Dana's sense of humor.

Steven Universe Creator Rebecca Sugar on crafting a show about family, love and aliens

Last month at the MoCCA Festival, I sat down with Rebecca Sugar, the woman behind the hit animated series Steven Universe. She doesn't spill anything about the new season, which launched this week, and I didn't ask for any spoilers, but we spoke about how she thinks about the show, science fiction, intersectional feminism and more.

Roberta Gregory on Mother Mountain, Wimmen's Comix and Bitchy Bitch

Roberta Gregory has long been a groundbreaking cartoonist. She's been creating great work since the 1970's, though she still remains best known for Bitchy Bitch, the protagonist of her long running series Naughty Bits. I spoke with her for my epic article about Wimmen's Comix for The Comics Journal and here we talk about her career and what she's working on now.

Azzarello, Bisley and Floyd craft a heavy metal quest in the violently funny Alpha King

I've heard about 3 Floyds Brewing Company, though never drank the beer - they're a regional brewery and I haven't been through Indiana for a while - and now Nick Floyd has teamed up with Brian Azzarello and Simon Bisley to make a comic book inspired by the labels, designs and mythology behind the brewery. I'm a fan of all of them so I got the chance to get them on the phone together and talk about the project.

Articles Published the Week of May 1st

Dean Haspiel's The Red Hook creates its own superhero ecosystem in Brooklyn

I'm a big fan of Dean Haspiel and I've interviewed him for years about a wide range of projects. His new big project is The Red Hook, a free weekly webcomic which is part of Haspiel's larger project of "New Brooklyn." I visited his studio in April and we sat down and talked about the project, how it began, the way his thinking about Brooklyn has changed over the years and trying to add some fun and romance into superhero comics.

Celebrate Free Comic Book Day with Wicks and Chad's "Science Comics"

First Second Books has launched a new imprint this year, Science Comics, and they're taking part in Free Comic Book Day this year to promote the line and asked two of their cartoonists - Maris Wicks and Jon Chad - to create new short comics about their books in the series, Coral Reefs and Volcanoes.


Review: What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman

Review: What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman

I'm a fan of travel books and I'm a fan of Kristin Newman (a sitcom writer whose work recently on The Muppets and Galavant was talented). Plus the book has a great title.

Admittedly as someone who is alone and childless (and has, due to not making nearly as much money, has been told that I've taken a few awesome trips) I can relate to both the boasting in the title and the annoyance and frustration that underlies it.

The book details the adventures that Newman took to Argentina and France, Brazil, Iceland and elsewhere. She traveled alone a lot, or with friends, she met people there, and besides being incredibly funny (so funny) it's a really impressive book about getting older, about traveling and dislocation. The book details a series of trips that take place over more than a decade and

Among Newman's many Hollywood credits are How I Met Your Mother (sidenote: Newman reveals why it was that Robin returned from Argentina with a boyfriend) but at its best, the show managed to convey in a funny but thoughtful way about what it meant to grow older. And that's precisely what this memoir does.

Also Newman is very sharp about what it means to travel - and travel solo - in your thirties. Some of them I knew, some I've experienced but never put into words, and others were just much funnier put than I can manage.

Really the only flaw in the book from my perspective is the ending. In short she meets a guy and finds happiness and yes, it's wonderful for her. It just felt like an unexciting ending. Newman admits as much in the text.

I do wish that one of Newman's TV projects which would feature life in hostels overseas or among travelers would make it on the air. That I would watch...maybe if there were muppets also working in the hostel...hmmm...

Articles Published the Week of April 10th

"MAD" Artist Al Jaffee Celebrates Turning 95 Years Young

One of the great privileges of my career was getting invited recently to Al Jaffee's 95th birthday. The legendary cartoonist - who remains perhaps best known as the creator of the Mad Magazine fold-in - celebrated with friends and colleagues (and a couple journalists). I got to speak with him early in the night and at 95 he's still active and creative - which is something we all can envy.

Garth Ennis Proves Everything Old is New at Image Comics with a Trio of Re-releases

I've long been a fan of Garth Ennis' comics work and I got to talk with him recently about three books coming out this year, reprinting three very different older projects of his.

Articles Published the Week of April 3rd

An Oral History of Wimmen's Comix: Part 2

The second part of my lengthy conversation with two dozen members of the Wimmen's Comix collective about their work and careers.

Puke Force Creator Says "Excavating Internal Garbage" Is His Job

Brian Chippendale is a great artist and musician and Drawn and Quarterly has published Chippendale's first book in years, Puke Force, and it manages to be this raw brutal story that's also a meandering meditation on life and events and violence and surveillance the world in which we live.


Articles Published the Week of March 27th

An Oral History of Wimmen's Comix: Part I

If you've talked to me in the past year, you've likely heard me mention this project. I spoke with two dozen cartoonists about It Ain't Me, Babe and Wimmne's Comix, two important comics anthologies. This is the first of two parts. Many of them really opened up to me and were very open about their lives and their careers, the challenges they faced, their personal lives. I am really honored that they shared their stories with me and I can only hope that the article and the new Collected Wimmen's Comics volume helps introduce or remind people of many of these artists and their work.

The Imitation Game decodes the real life adventure and tragedy of Alan Turing

I'm a huge fan of Jim Ottaviani, who has written a number of graphic novels about scientists and science. He and Leland Purvis have worked together before on a book about Niels Bohr, and their new book tackles Alan Turing. Like so many people I'm a great admirer of Turing, who is a truly awesome figure of the 20th Century for so many reasons. Read this book to discover that Turing was a world class athlete in addition to a legendary mind. It's a great book and a great tribute.


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Championship

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Championship

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy vs. The Sellout by Paul Beatty

In short, I liked The Sellout, but I thought The Turner House is a brilliant, transcendent novel.

At the Tournament, though, Paul Beatty wins the Rooster.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the next book from each of them, whenever that comes. (I'm also looking forward to The Turner House being turned into an award winning film or TV miniseries which will make Angela Flournoy a household name).

11 months until the next ToB...


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Zombie Round, Day Two

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Zombie Round, Day Two

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff vs. The Sellout by Paul Beatty


I'm tempted to leave it there - mostly because this is insanely busy day, but I feel like I should something about my sense of the differences between the two books.

The Sellout, as pretty much everyone has said, is not a realistic novel, is not a book read for plot. It is about the sentences, it is about the humor, it is about the ideas. It is a wild and crazy ride of a novel that manages to slice through a lot of big issues in an incredibly deft way.

I think maybe my biggest problem with Groff is that I read it after the book had accumulated hype. Like the idea that's a book about marriage. Well, I thought it was pretty shallow in that regard - not as shallow as its main character Lotto (bazinga) but it's a wild melodrama. The book has an energy, I think Groff is a good writer, but her prose doesn't jump off the page the way that Beatty's does. Also Groff accomplishes a lot of the narrative momentum and energy by adding plot twist after another and after a while, it's tiring.

Melodrama can be something amazing but it's a very fine line to walk. A lot of people don't recognize this, but they do see it when melodrama fails or falters, becomes too saccharine, becomes just outrageous-ness, never quite achieves a level of cohesion. Fates and Furies never manages that. The first half was flat and the second half is wild and overall the effect just doesn't quite work.

Beatty on the other hand, does.

My Verdict:  The Sellout

At the Tournament:  The Sellout


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Zombie Round, Day One

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Zombie Round, Day One

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara vs. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

So I've already admitted that I think The Turner House should win the rooster and that A Little Life left me sobbing.

I do understand many of the problems that people have with A Little Life. It's a very allegorical story but then Jude's abuse is so unique, so detailed, that what initially seems like an allegory about Jude trying to move forward without being able to confront his past, but after it is explained in detail in the text, it's unclear how to respond to it.

I also know that one of the book's strengths for me is one of the aspects of the book that was exhausted people the most, namely, the detailed and exhaustive depression and self-abuse. I found it one of the best depictions of depression I've read in a long time. As one who has depression, what others thought was exhausting and over the top as Jude once again thought about how horrible he is, how if anyone knew the truth about him they would shun him and stop caring about him, that people's love is so conditional, that maybe he should end it all - where others are exhausted by this happening yet again in the book, I think, yeah, that's a typical Thursday.

Another overlooked aspect is the genderfluid nature of the characters. Jude and Willem are two men who ultimately end up in a relationship but neither really identifies as gay. Willem makes the point in the book that he's not interested in men, he's interested in Jude. Similarly, Jude is largely asexual. I think that this has been overlooked and it's sad because it is such an interesting part of this allegorical utopian New York that they live in.

Having said that, The Turner House is a very different book in that it's not interested in allegory, it is a book about individuals in an actual city. This is a family saga and like the very best family stories, each characters is unique with their own voice in perspective, the book is nothing but conflict, and there are no villains. You're sympathetic towards them all, you don't hate any, but you can't say that love any of the characters - in other words, family.

It's a hard feat to pull off but when it's done well - and Flournoy does it very well - it feels like a family. It feels like individuals with their own voice who are related and who react to each other like a family.

The book does so many things that seem effortless. So many things that make it easy to ignore just how hard it is to be this subtle, this thoughtful, this nuanced. 

My Verdict:  The Turner House

At the Tournament:  The Turner House


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Semifinals, Day Two

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Semifinals, Day Two

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra vs. The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The tough questions in the Tournament often come in the later rounds where you're forced to consider two books that you liked, and of course the easy answer is to say that people should read both, but as Highlander taught us–there can be only one.

And in this case, funny enough, the books share a lot in common. Both have a dark, absurdist worldview. Both made me laugh out loud. Both are very writerly books, in the sense that they way each author is telling the story is central to the book's appeal. Of course I also know people who have resisted both books or were at least left cold by them. Language can do that and when walking the tightropes that each does, it's almost inevitable that some people will resist being pulled along for a variety of reasons. I know people who aren't nearly as enthusiastic about each book as I am and as others are.

Maybe it's a question of what one likes. After all I do like dark humor, I enjoy the puzzle structure that the individual stories of Marra's book force you to think about create connections. At the same time I can see people getting annoyed by certain elements. Also I loved The Sellout but it's so absurd and funny that a lot of people just won't connect with it because of that - simply the tenor of the humor has caused a lot of people I know to push back a little even if they like many aspects of Beatty's book. Also while Marra's book has some very funny moments, the humor is a much more straight forward kind and not the intense way of Beatty's book.

In the end, I just liked Tsar a little more.

My Verdict: The Tsar of Love and Techno

At the Tournament:  The Sellout.


The 2016 Tournament of Books - Semifinals, Day One

The 2016 Tournament of Books - Semifinals, Day One

Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson vs. The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

In many of the matchups at different rounds of the tournament, I base my decision on very simple thinking: I liked one book but I loved the other book. That's why I preferred The Turner House.

Some of that is simply a question of personal taste, of the preferences that one has for a certain genre or approach. In reading the comments throughout the Tournament-

(Here I should add that I think that the ToB comments section are possibly the only comment section on the internet worth reading, composed of passionate, opinionated readers discussing what they love - as opposed to most comments sections, which convince me that if humanity were wiped out tomorrow, it would be a net benefit for the universe)

But in reading the Tournament commentators, they typically damn The Turner House with faint praise. They describe it as traditional and well constructed. The idea being that compared to a book like Bats of the Republic, which is insane, which is conceived and structured and designed to be a unique experience, that The Turner House lacks something by simply being words on a page designed to be read in order.

Of course it's about what you want out of a book, but now that it's been a little while since I read both books, I'm not struck less by my initial thoughts but now what has stayed with me. For example I enjoyed assembling a jigsaw puzzle while on a roller coaster (or whatever awkward metaphor we're using to describe the experience of reading Bats of the Republic) and I loved the design. Hell, I probably spent as much time obsessing and looking over the design of the book as I did actually reading the book. But at a remove, the characters and much of the plot have faded. The characters were always thinly drawn and at a distance, they only way they stick in my mind is their role in the plot.

By contrast, The Turner House is a family saga involving a large Detroit-based family, but it's all about the characters and even though it's been a month since I read the book I can still remember the characters their voices. That's what is so striking about the book, that Flournoy manages to juggle so many characters, to make their voices so distinct and unique. This is a first novel but it doesn't read like it. Flournoy manages to make it look so easy and I think that's the reason for some of the understated praise because what she is able to do is so profound and so powerful, but also very simple. After all, shouldn't all novels have lots of characters, each of whom has their own voice? Shouldn't a story about a family actually act like a family and not like some idea of a family?

Of course most books don't. In her first novel Flournoy does an amazing job of capturing the characters as individuals and the family dynamics. It's easy to have a "bad kid" who everyone else has a an opinion about, to create conflict in melodramatic ways, but to find a way to make the conflict organic to the characters and the situations is something very rare.

The Turner House is a work of genius and a great novel about the United States. If you haven't read it yet, please do.

My Verdict:  The Turner House

At the Tournament:  The Turner House