Category Archives: places

The World of the Graphic Novel

The excellent New England Science Fiction Events blog has just alerted me to a necessary event for those living in the Massachusetts area who are interested in comic books. The Fitchburg Art Museum will launch a new exhibit at the end of September called LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel, which will run September 25-January 1, 2012. Here’s the description:

LitGraphic: The World of the Graphic Novel will examine the use of sequential art as a significant form of visual communication, and place specific emphasis on the art of the contemporary graphic novel. This special exhibition will feature over 200 original art works, including paintings, drawings, storyboards, studies, books, photographs, and a documentary film, offering insights into the lives of the artists and the nature of their work.

I’ll be looking to head out there once the show opens.


The Books of Traveling

While on vacation, we got a chance to visit The Strand bookstore in New York City. When I travel, I buy books as souvenirs, but not in an obvious way. I don’t tend to buy books about New York City, for example. Instead, I pick up books that will make me think of that particular place and time. In honor of The Strand, all my book links in this post will point to their online store.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I picked up The Undressed Art: Why We Draw by Peter Steinhart, after spending two hours in the drawings and prints exhibit. I’ve read the first couple chapters and am so far finding it’s exactly what I was hoping for–a nontechnical work intended for the curious layperson that explores how drawing affects a person’s life. Its focus so far seems to be on amateur artists and life drawing, and drawing as a hobby, though Steinhart does interview pro artists and models.

At The Strand, after some discussion, my husband and I picked up the following books (all the prices were great, so it’s worth checking out what The Strand is selling them for):

The Curtain by Milan Kundera–a philosophical essay on the art of the novel (my choice, enthusiastically seconded by him–he talked me out of putting this one back when we were whittling down our stack)

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas in a new translation by Richard Pevear–we both love Dumas, and the translator and the physical beauty of the edition were what sold us on this volume, which will be our third version of this book (his choice)

A boxed set of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, The Black Book, and Snow–I’ve been curious to read Pamuk for a long time, and when I checked out this set, I felt like the books came across as literary mysteries of a type I might like. (my choice)

Tales of H.P. Lovecraft, selected and edited by Joyce Carol Oates–you can never have too much Lovecraft (his choice)

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands by Michael Chabon–I was sold on Chabon’s attention in these essays to the question of how genre work and literary writing fit together. He’s a credible source, particularly considering the attention that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union got from both sides of that equation, and I often wonder about things along these lines. As readers of this blog well know, my tastes run in both directions, and I often wonder if I’m losing readers by jumping from one to the other. I’m curious to see what Chabon has to say about this. (my choice)

Doctor No by Ian Fleming–This is an example of what I mean about souvenirs. I feel like The Strand has a hip, pulpy vibe in the midst of its formidable literary stacks. Getting the Fleming from there felt right. (my choice)

You may have noticed that I chose more of the books–I’m bad that way. My husband says he’s glad to have married someone who loves books more than he does, though he had not previously realized that such people existed.


I may be the last to the party here, but I recently discovered Indiebound, a cool site that helps people hook up with local bookstores. There’s a button on the front page that will find nearby bookstores if you enter your zip code. From there, you can get on those stores’ websites and support your local bookstore while buying books at 3 a.m.

It’s weird that this didn’t occur to me sooner. I’m a big believer in indie bookstores, and usually make a point of trying to go buy books in person from the stores I like. I was in Salem recently for a day trip and stopped by Cornerstone Books. I picked up a few things there and asked about a book they didn’t have in stock. The clerk suggested I order it later from their website. This idea seemed strange to me, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder why it never occurred to me.

Ordering books from closer to home does make sense when I think about it. Harvard Book Store, which is closer to me than Cornerstone, recently introduced bicycle deliveries, which I think is a neat idea (I haven’t tried it yet).

One thing I’ve realized about ordering online from indie bookstores is that I still get some of that indie flavor. Harvard Book Store’s site, for example, includes loads of staff recommendations that give a flavor of the store. Compare them, for example, with the staff recommendations at Brookline Booksmith, another local store. I had not realized that I could get that sort of local experience online. I feel a little slow here.

A Souvenir

Today, I finished Elizabeth McCracken’s Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, an excellent short story collection published back in 1993.

I picked this up over 4th of July weekend at Tim’s Used Books in Provincetown. Click on the link to the store, and you’ll see why I had to follow the path to the store’s front door — it had too much sense of mystery to pass up. The store is small. The fiction section is a single floor to ceiling shelf, not much wider than I am. I like that in a bookstore, though. It’s nice to be able to read all the titles in the fiction section and then start pondering. I like getting a balanced alphabet in my selections.

I like to buy souvenirs when I travel, but this is the sort of thing I get. To be honest, I’d be unlikely to read histories of Provincetown, and I’ve got little use for picture-filled coffee table books. On the other hand, I always remember the bookstores I visit. I still remember that 10 years ago, during my first visit to the St. John’s College Bookstore in Annapolis, where I later ended up working off and on for four years, I bought a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish and Other Poems. Or that, a year and a half ago at San Francisco’s famous City Lights Books, I bought Georges Bataille’s deeply disturbing Story of the Eye, a book that I’m not sure I will ever have the courage to read again. The experience of reading these books will forever color my memories of these places.

And sometimes, the souvenir is even more serendipitous. When I bought McCracken’s book, the bookseller informed me that she used to be a customer at that store. The stories in her book are set deeply in Massachusetts, and are populated with odd characters. I ended up thinking of Provincetown as I read these stories, imagining that she was surely influenced by that place — a beach town that must go deeply gloomy in the winter, full of hordes of tourists and drag queens in the summer.

I knew I had to buy the book when I read the first paragraph of the first story, “It’s Bad Luck to Die.”

Maybe you wonder how a Jewish girl from Des Moines got Jesus Christ tattooed on her three times: ascending on one thigh, crucified on the other, and conducting a miniature apocalypse beneath the right shoulder. It wasn’t religion that put them there; it was Tiny, my husband. I have a Buddha round back, too. He was going to give me Moses parting the Red Sea, but I was running out of space. Besides, I told him, I was beginning to feel like a Great Figures in Religion comic book.

While I love short stories, I’m sometimes suspicious of literary fiction, which I suspected McCracken’s book of being. I find that sometimes, in literary fiction, it seems like nothing happens. There are pretty descriptions, but no plot. This wasn’t the case here. People murder people, fall in love with people, run away from their families, lie to each other. And most of the characters are delightfully strange, even while many of the stories have a dark streak. Here are quick comments on my favorites:

The title story is the one that’s really going to stay with me. “Aunt Helen Beck” concocts family relationships that she uses to mooch of strangers for as long as she can get away with it. McCracken uses this full name every time she mentions her, and this is an important piece of characterization in itself. Here’s an excerpt:

Aunt Helen Beck worked hard at all the things that convinced people to let her stay. She got up early to bake bread, examined the books that were on the shelves and referred to them in conversation. She did dishes immediately; cooked for herself; went to bed early and pretended to sleep soundly.

She charmed Mercury, at least. He adored her, and started playing in the yard less and in the house more. She instructed Mercury to behave, she threatened him with poems about goblins that stole nasty children, and he seemed eager to be taken, and asked her if she were the head goblin.

Every quirky detail in those paragraphs is made to count once Aunt Helen Beck’s ruse is discovered. In fact, I just now noticed that stealing nasty children turns out to be a theme. What seems to be a throwaway line on a first read is actually a carefully chosen piece of foreshadowing.

My other favorites are “Mercedes Kane,” about a woman who gets to meet, as an adult, the child prodigy she worshiped as a girl, and “Secretary of State,” which is a story about the sort of family that keeps all its members trapped in its web of opinion, but turns out to be a bittersweet story about love.

I’m glad I picked up this book and got the chance to discover McCracken. It looks like her next book is a memoir. I’m sorry that it seems she’s moved away from short stories, but perhaps I’ll read more of her in the future.