‘Killing and Dying’ by Adrian Tomine – Comic Stories for Adults

‘Killing and Dying’ by Adrian Tomine   (2015) – 121 pages


Looking at the lists for the best graphic novels of 2015, ‘Killing and Dying’ was far and away the one most frequently mentioned and thus presumably most gift-worthy.  But how do you give a Christmas gift to someone that is called ‘Killing and Dying’?  Am I the only one who thinks this is not exactly the festive Christmas spirit?  It would have been so easy to call the book something else.  The actual story ‘Killing and Dying’ is not at all what its title suggests.

So instead I gave this graphic novel to myself.   Rachel Cooke in the Guardian called Adrian Tomine the Alice Munro of comics, high praise indeed.  One similarity to Munro is that ‘Killing and Dying’ is actually divided into six graphic short stories rather than being a graphic novel.  The qualities that distinguish Adrian Tomine from other graphic writers are the off-beat originality of each of these stories as well as the emotional depth he achieves within each story.   This is one graphic novel I would not recommend for children under the age of sixteen, not because of any comic violence but instead because of its adult sensibilities.

Of the six stories in ‘Killing and Dying’, two of them are definitely my favorites.  The first story, ‘A Brief History of the Art Form Known as Hortisculpture’, is a humorous yet poignant take on a guy fulfilling his artistic inclination despite the skepticism of his wife and nearly everyone else.  The title story, ‘Killing and Dying’, is about a teenage girl who attempts to become a stand-up comedian much to the chagrin of especially her father.  There does seem to be a common thread between these two stories of individuals pursuing their dreams despite their dismissal by their family and perhaps the general public.

tumblr_ntlgnfuDzx1qav5oho1_250However the other four stories totally defy expectations.  I suppose it was a case of me becoming so enamored of those two above stories that I was a bit disappointed when the other stories were so completely different.  Perhaps I’m underestimating the impact of a story like ‘Amber Sweet’ about a young woman who finds herself mistaken for an internet porn star.

As far as the visuals go, one only needs to know that Adrian Tomine has done several covers for the New Yorker.  Enough said.

The comics in ‘Killing and Dying’ have a literary subtlety that is not usually associated with comics.    These are comics for adults.


Grade:   B+


‘Pacific’ by Tom Drury – The Guardian Reviewers vs. Me

‘Pacific’ by Tom Drury   (2013) – 194 pages



41RFpu344CL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_No, I did not rediscover Tom Drury. Jon McGregor and Mark Lawson, in two excellent articles in the Guardian, did that.  I am just the self-designated reader from the United States who decided to follow their advice and read Tom Drury.

First I will quote from the Jon McGregor article:

“These people are, in very particular ways, downright odd. As all of us are. In the stories of our own lives things happen moment by moment, and we keep getting stranger, and this is the truth Drury is leading us to here.

 But if you live in the real world, where life stalls and lurches forward with little real pattern and where the textures of our relationships accumulate moment by moment, then this is a novel you will recognize as being crammed with narrative.”

And now from the Mark Lawson article:

“In a similar way, Drury plaits together multiple plot lines that have a unifying quality of fretful oddness. 

 As the connections between these weirdnesses become clearer, the serious business is Drury’s prose. The style is slyly wry, so that a reference to “a locally famous taxidermist who had his own radio show” has gone past before you start to wonder just how the stuffing of animals would work on the wireless. This is also a writer who can go from laughter to darkness in an instant, as when, after what has seemed to be a tender sex scene, a woman reflects: “This was the best, the most bearable loneliness.”

Later Lawson compares Drury’s minimalist writing style to that of Raymond Carver’s.  Upon reading these two Guardian articles, I absolutely had to read Tom Drury.  Now after reading ‘Pacific’, I must say that my reactions to Drury’s writing style were not nearly so positive as these two Guardian writers.

The story in ‘Pacific’ alternates between two venues, the rural town of Stone City in Grouse County, Iowa and a place near Hollywood in Los Angeles.  As ‘Pacific’ begins, actress Joan Gower has returned to her original home in Stone City to take back to Hollywood her son Micah whom she had left with her ex-husband Tiny Darling seven years earlier.  Joan stars in the TV crime show ‘Forensic Mystic’, and she has been offered a lead role in a movie about Davy Crockett called ‘The Powder Horn’.

So the story goes back and forth between Stone City, Iowa and Hollywood.  There is a murder plot in Iowa and in Hollywood Micah makes some new friends as Joan’s second marriage falls apart.

The two Guardian writers are correct that Tom Drury has a unique style of minimalism, but I’m not sure that is such a good thing.  Characters in ‘Pacific’ are not introduced.  They just show up and start doing stuff.  Peripheral characters keep showing up, and Drury gives no indication as to their importance or unimportance to the plot.   Frequently there are a few lines about a specific character, but then he or she is just dropped and never re-appears in the novel.   Instead of well-developed characters, we get people who might as well be ants going aimlessly about their colonies.   I’m sure that Tom Drury is making a valid point about the haphazardness of human life, but I still found all this random behavior by characters rather tiresome in a novel.  The reader stays on the shallow end in regard to these characters and never goes any deeper no matter how many times we encounter them.

Another difficulty I had with ‘Pacific’ is the flat uniformity of the sentences.  Every sentence seemed to be short and declarative with the standard “subject, verb, object” form.   I could have used much more variety in the sentence structures.  This  sameness made me wonder what I liked so much about the minimalist style at one time

Basically it all comes down to the Pleasure Principle.  I can understand why these Guardian writers appreciate the quirkiness of the writing of Tom Drury.  However I found myself on each chapter after reading only a few pages, wishing the chapter would end so I could quit reading.  In other words, I was not getting enough pleasure from my reading to sustain my attention.

Perhaps I should have read Drury’s ‘The End of Vandalism’ instead, as by all accounts that is his best novel.


Grade: B            


‘Beatlebone’ by Kevin Barry – John Lennon in Western Ireland

‘Beatlebone’ by Kevin Barry  (2015) – 299 pages



151102_BOOKS_BEATLEBONE-cover.jpg.CROP.article250-medium‘Beatlebone’ is a novel about John Lennon of the Beatles.  Lennon had bought a small deserted island called Dorinish off the far northwestern coast of Ireland in 1967, and ‘Beatlebone’ is about his unlikely visit to the island in 1978.

John Lennon was surely the edgiest one of the Beatles and the easiest one for people to dislike.  He was the original leader and created the Beatles and was one of  the group’s main singers.  He wrote many of the great Beatles songs including ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Help’, ‘All You Need is Love’, ‘Ticket to Ride’, and all the way up to their last recorded song ‘Come Together’.  After the Beatles broke up, he wrote ‘Imagine’ and ‘Instant Karma (We All Shine On)’ among many others.  During that solo time Lennon lived in the United States, and the FBI monitored him the entire time he lived there.

Lennon was also the most emotionally fragile of the Beatles.  He frequently came across as droll and sarcastic.  In 1978 Lennon had not recorded an album for three years.  He was finally off the really hard drugs, and he believed if he could spend some time alone on his island, he could get to a place where he could write music again.

Kevin Barry understands the difficulty of writing about Lennon.

 “He is quite nasal and often defensive. There is a haughtiness that can be almost princely, but his moods are capricious – sometimes he is very charming and funny and light; at other times there is a darkness evident, and an impatience that can bleed almost into bitterness.  He can transition from fluffy to spiky very quickly, even within the course of the same sentence.  Often during these interviews he was accompanied by Yoko Ono, who very clearly, from this distance, was the tethering fix in his life; lacking her presence, you get the feeling that he might have unspooled altogether.”

One thing Barry accomplishes in ‘Beatlebone’ is that he does get Lennon’s voice right.  However ‘Beatlebone’ did not work for me well as a novel.  Whereas Barry’s ‘City of Bohane’ was an Irish lyrical imaginary tour de force and I was dazzled by his stories in ‘Dark Lies the Island’, ‘Beatlebone’ did not seem well enough grounded to earth for it to be a compelling read for me.  My interest in the novel tended to float away.

Dorinish Island in Ireland

Dorinish Island in Ireland

And what about Lennon’s island of Dorinish?

“John (Lennon): Turns out the thought of it is the thing, Charlie.  The reality is slippery rocks and freezing fucking sea and creamy fucking gull shit.  Not to mention the banshee fucking wind.”  

I read a review written before he was murdered of John Lennon’s last album ‘Double Fantasy’. In it Lennon’s songs are praised as nice tunes, but Lennon made the unfortunate mistake of alternating his songs with poor ones by Yoko Ono which dragged the whole album down.


Grade: B          


‘The Price of Salt’ (‘Carol’) by Patricia Highsmith

‘Carol’, original name ‘The Price of Salt’, by Patricia Highsmith (1952) – 292 pages


‘Carol’ actually is the story of Therese Belivet, a 19 year old young woman who has taken a pre-Christmas job working at the toy counter in a department store but who is most interested in designing sets for theatrical productions. Therese has a boyfriend named Richard who loves her, but she gives him practically nothing in the way of affection.  She waits in dread for the nights he will ask her to stay with him, and she usually manages a plausible excuse to turn him down.

One day at the department store, a wealthy suburban wife and mother named Carol comes in to buy a doll.  Therese waits on her, and the sparks fly at once between them.  The attraction on both sides is intense like nothing Therese has experienced before.  Soon Carol invites Therese out for drinks, and Therese eagerly accepts.

The word that best describes ‘Carol’ for me is ‘verisimilitude’.  In other words, the story here has the quality of seeming real.  Individuals probably do not have much control over the ones to which they are attracted or not attracted.  ‘Carol’ captures that overwhelming passion that can occur between two people, in this case the two women.

“With a thousand memories and moments, words, the first darling, the second time Carol had met her at the store, a thousand memories of Carol’s face, her voice, moments of anger and laughter flashed like the tail of a comet across her brain… And she did not have to ask if this was right, no one had to tell her, because this could not have been more right or perfect.”   

Patricia Highsmith, originally from Texas, wrote this novel soon after her first novel ‘Strangers on a Train’ achieved great success due to the movie Alfred Hitchcock made based on it.  For ‘The Price of Salt’, Highsmith used a pseudonym, and it developed a cult following as a lesbian novel.  Now, over sixty years later, it has been made into an Oscar-contending movie, ‘Carol’, by Todd Haynes starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.  Later in her writing career Patricia Highsmith, who never married, would write five psychological thrillers with Tom Ripley as the main character.

carol-2015Much of the novel is taken up with a road trip by Therese and Carol across the United States, but don’t expect much of scenery or local color as this is mainly a psychological novel of the heated attraction between these two.  There are a few scenes that take place on the road in the car, but otherwise we hardly ever leave the hotel.  At a few points in the novel the singular intensity of their relationship was not quite enough to sustain my interest.

I can see how ‘Carol’ would work well as a screenplay with the movie cameras providing the outside visuals that are missing from this novel of obsessive love.


Grade:  B+



The Top Twelve List of the Best Fiction I’ve Read in 2015



Another banner year for reading fiction comes to an end, and here again is my list of the best fiction I have read in the past twelve months.  Of course my list is subjective to the extreme, but that is half the fun of these lists anyway.

Click on the picture or title and author to see my original review.


1. ‘Fates and Furies’ by Lauren Groff Fates(2015) – Here is a writer who can comfortably put Greek myth and Shakespeare into a modern marriage story. There is a manic energy and an inventiveness here that puts this novel above the rest.





2. 42780977 ‘Honeydew’ by Edith Pearlman (2015) – Finally a collection of  stories that is at least as good as the quotes on the back cover.  Each story is dense, warm, and poignant. A quirky weirdness permeates most of these stories, all for the better.






3. ‘T9780812996722_p0_v1_s118x184hirteen Ways of Looking’ by Colum McCann (2015) – The title novella here is the finest fiction I’ve read this year. The prose is lyrical and hypnotic.






14005824. ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ by Elena Ferrante (2015) – The final novel about Lenu and Lila, the two girls from a Naples neighborhood now grown up. Now that it is over, will I face Ferrante-withdrawal?





23269047._UY200_5. ‘When the Doves Disappeared’ by Sofi Oksanen (2012) – A novel about Estonia from the German occupation in World War II through the Soviet occupation which lasted 44 years after the war. The doves disappeared, because the occupying Germans liked to eat doves.





coverimg6. ‘How to be Both’ by Ali Smith (2014) – A playful novel of two parts. One part follows the Italian Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa. The other part is about a 16 year old girl living in modern England named George who hates the song ‘Georgy Girl’ for which she was named.




7A wild Swan-web. ‘A Wild Swan’ by Michael Cunningham (2015) – Some of the oldest fairy tales including ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, and ‘Snow White’ are re-told from a wicked grown-up perspective.





sellout8. ‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty (2015) – This is the comic account of the town of Dickens, a rural suburb stuck in the middle of Los Angeles. The sentences in ‘The Sellout’ take so many twists and turns you wind up in a different place than when you started them.




70296689. Purge’ by Sofi Oksanen
(2010) – A second entry for Sofi Oksanen who is my discovery of the year after Groff. It is the story of Zara, a young woman taken up by two violent Russian male pimps, and Aliide Truu, an old woman living in the Estonian countryside. This novel confronts deeper truths of good and evil than other novels do.





cv_americanlover10. ‘The American Lover’ by Rose Tremain (2015) – A varied group of convincing stories by one of the world’s better novelists. This collection will do until Rose Tremain writes another novel.






9780316231244_p0_v2_s118x18411. ‘There Must be Some Mistake’ by Frederick Barthelme (2014) – A humorous novel about modern junk culture where everyone under thirty looks like a gas station attendant even though there are no gas station attendants anymore. A guy who shows up in cowboy regalia is ‘cowboyed up’. Our food arrives thick, gloppy, greasy, misshapen, lukewarm, and inedible.’




978037417853612. ‘The Dog’ by Jack Livings (2015) – Perhaps the best description of China’s current government is “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.  General Motors now sells more cars in China than in the United States. These stories give us the lively inside story about what’s going on in China today.


Step Aside, Pops – Zany Comics for Brainy Folks

‘Step Aside, Pops – A Hark! A Vagrant Collection’ by Kate Beaton   (2015) – 166 pages


stepaside-300x300If you are looking for a light Christmas present for a brainy person or a brainy couple or a brainy family, I can’t think of anything better than ‘Step Aside, Pops’.

Subjects in this graphic comic collection include ‘Chopin and Liszt’, ‘Juarez and Maximilian’, and ‘Julius Caesar’ as well as less brainy subjects as Spiderman, Lois Lane, Cinderella, the Strong Female Characters, and a male extra from Janet Jackson’s video, ‘Nasty’.  Just about any offbeat topic is fair game for Kate Beaton.

A comic about Jane Austen and the Brontés has the following Kate Beaton aside:

“They say that Austenmania is dead, in which case, long live Brontémania, and may we always have a mania to sustain us.”

That is the lively playful spirit that drives this fun collection.

Not that these comic riffs by Kate Beaton are all that intelligent and uplifting.  Some are just plain stupid.   Yes, a lot of the humor here is ridiculous and sophomoric. That is intentional.  Some I did not get at all such as Kokoro, Parts 1 and 2.  But where else will you find a silly joke about Alexander Pope in a comic as well as Alexander Pushkin, Alexander the Great, and Alexander Graham Bell, all put together in ‘Famous Alexanders’?

One of Kate Beaton’s heroes is the American journalist, Ida B. Wells.  “A statue of Ida in every home, or the world isn’t fair.”  Beaton devotes several pages of comics to her.  I barely recognized the name Ida B. Wells, and thus I went to Wikipedia and Google to find out more about her.  ‘Step Aside, Pops’ left me curious to find out more about several of its subjects.

This year a few of my Christmas presents will be graphic novels.  There have been several write-ups discussing the best graphic novels for the year which I am using as guides.  Graphic novels seem to work better as presents than traditional novels.  I find it next to impossible to pick out a full novel as a present for someone.  A novel is just too much of an investment in time for the reader, and individual tastes are just too personal.  However a graphic novel does not present such a dilemma and can be enjoyed by an entire family.

‘Step Aside, Pops’ is one that I probably will be giving as a present.



Grade: A- 

‘A Wild Swan’, Fairy Tales Wildly Retold by Michael Cunningham

‘A Wild Swan and Other Tales’ by Michael Cunningham  (2015) – 135 pages



23848124In ‘A Wild Swan’, Michael Cunningham starts with the circumstances of some of the oldest fairy tales such as ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Snow White’, and ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, and transforms them into something new and different.

Cunningham uses the declarative language of fairy tales to get us into these stories: a thatched-roofed cottage, a prince and a princess, a giant, a miller, a castle, a gnome. However then Cunningham throws us definite curve balls, language that you would never ever find in a fairy tale such lines as “you embarked on a career of harshly jovial sluttishness”.  Despite their fairy tale settings, these tales are meant for teenagers or adults, each with a wicked slant to which we big people can relate.  These stories wind up being perhaps even more strange and gruesome than the original fairy tale.

In the story simply called ‘Beasts’, which is Cunningham’s take on ‘Beauty and the Beast’, the father is going off to the city on business and asks his three daughters  what presents they’d like him to bring back.  The two younger daughters ask for silk stockings, for petticoats, for laces and ribbons.  However Beauty, the oldest daughter, asked only for a single rose, her reasoning thus:

“Do you really imagine a frock or hair ribbon will help?  Do you think it’ll improve the ten or so barely passable village men, or alter the modest hope that I will, at least, not end up marrying Claude the hog butcher, or Henri with the withered arm?  Do you believe a petticoat could be compensation for our paucity of chances?

I’d rather just have a rose.”

Does a young lady really require finery to attract Claude the hog butcher?  You won’t find such an ironic sensibility in a young maiden in the old fairy tales, and that is what makes Cunningham’s tales so devastating and fun.

Such phrases as “barely passable village men” and “compensation for our paucity of chances” won’t be found in children’s stories.  These fairy tales have a sharp sensibility.

7aff4f3a7e295164ad814f46561af048These tales remind me of the work of another writer who used folk and other stories as the raw material for his own strange and wonderful novels.   I am thinking of the French writer, Michel Tournier.  Tournier’s novel ‘Friday’ started with the story of Robinson Crusoe.  His novel ‘The Four Wise Men’ was based on the Wise Men who went to see the baby Jesus in the Bible story.  Tournier also took his turn at transforming the old fairy tales in ‘The Golden Droplet’.

I consider Michel Tournier to be a ‘do not miss’ writer.  In ‘A Wild Swan’, I see Michael Cunningham in his witty and wild retelling of these fairy tales as a worthy successor to Tournier.

With its fine illustrations by Yuko Shimizo, ‘A Wild Swan’ would make an excellent Christmas present for any teenager or an adult, but probably not for little children.


Grade: A



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