Monday, September 14, 2009

6. To the Best of Our Knowledge (TTBOOK)

Sadly, we were unable to add another subject to our online catalogue of enthusiasms last week. But we have good reasons/excuses: we started two (!) new jobs and we went away for three days and two nights to attend a book launch. (It wasn’t our book, but one of its co-authors is our best friend.) Now that that’s out of the way, let the entry begin.

Over the past few years, we’ve downloaded dozens of different podcasts. Typically, we only listen to a few episodes before our interest begins to flag. One of our favourite podcasts at the moment is To the Best of Our Knowledge (TTBOOK), which is produced by Wisconsin Public Radio and distributed by Public Radio International (PRI). We were already familiar with a few great PRI-distributed podcasts (e.g., This American Life, The Sound of Young America), but we were pleasantly surprised to learn that (besides cheese and beer) Wisconsin produces an earthy and effervescent podcast. (We're also happy that the program isn't called Cheesehead Radio!)

How we discovered TTBOOK:
We found the podcast while browsing in iTunes. We downloaded an intriguing-sounding episode (“Elementary Holmes”) and really liked the interview-driven style of the show. By the end of the episode, we’d learned quite a bit about Sherlock Holmes, and we’d added a book to our to-read list (The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes [2005]). The week after hearing “Elementary Holmes,” we listened to an episode about lists (“Lust For Life Lists”). We like lists. And we liked these two episodes. The diversity of these two topics hooked us into TTBOOK immediately.

Why TTBOOK is worth a listen:
TTBOOK has three likeable, knowledgeable interviewers (Steve Paulson and Anne Strainchamp, as well as host Jim Fleming), and these interviewers pose great questions to a wide range of engaging interviewees (e.g., Thomas Friedman, Jane Goodall, and DJ Spooky are all interviewed in a single episode; the topic was "Our Earth" and the episode aired in April 2009). And the shows are created quite quickly: There are two new hour-long, theme-based episodes each week. By the end of each episode, we know something we didn't know an hour ago.

We’ve learned about nerd culture, karaoke, and radical gardening. We’ve been inspired to bake Marlborough Pie, an apple pie that includes grated apples, eggs, and lemon juice and zest. (If you're interested,
here is the recipe we used. The filling is very custard-like and lemony. It's unlike other apple pies we've tried.) We’ve also been interested enough to read books by some of the guests, including a lighthearted, entertaining book about tribute bands called Like a Rolling Stone (2008). The book's author, Steven Kurutz, appeared on an episode called "So You Wanna Be a Rockstar." His description of the Rolling Stones tribute band Sticky Fingers piqued our interest.

Recent topics on TTBOOK include autism, memory, libraries, remix culture, and David Foster Wallace. To tell you the truth, we were not looking forward to the episode on DFW. (We recently read lengthy articles in the
New Yorker and Rolling Stone on him and were suffering from slight DFW overload.) But this was a really good episode. The discussions were generally illuminating, and Anne Strainchamp even managed to talk to his sister, Amy.

The TTBOOK website includes archives of the streamable episodes dating back to 2003.

For a change, we don't have any recommendations for other viewing/reading this week. Likely this is because we're ridiculously busy right now and suspect you may be as well.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

5. Ben Katchor

We never tire of Ben Katchor's work. Yes, he is a cartoonist. But he's also a genius. Just ask the folks at the MacArthur Foundation who awarded him a "genius grant" in 2000. We don't know anyone who loves Katchor's art (it's not just comix; it's art, for real) as much as we do. But we are optimistic that this could change.

How we discovered Ben Katchor:

Several years ago, we read an intriguing review in the Globe and Mail for his book Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District (2000). We bought his previous book (Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer) at the independent Granville Book Company -- the bookstore is now gone, and it's sorely missed -- after reading only a few pages. We rarely buy books on the spot like that, but we're very glad that we did. Since then, we've read, bought, and reread all of Katchor's books. (There are only four of them to date.)

Why Katchor is worth reading:

No other writer celebrates the nooks and crannies of the urban landscape like Katchor. He's the unacknowledged laureate of metropolitan minutia, ephemera and detritus. (Sample titles of one-page stories by Katchor include "Sanitary Drinking Straws," "The Heating-Pad Repair Shop," and "The Smell of the Post Office.") His drawing style is unpretentious and expressive. His comic strips are funny, wonder-filled, and incredibly intricate. They also feature an inventive interplay between image and text. Katchor's books -- like those of his innovative, deservingly-lauded contemporary Chris Ware -- reward close attention and are invariably worth returning to again and again.

Where to start:

Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer (1996)

The Jew of New York (1999)

The books:

Three of Katchor's books include Julius Knipl, a real estate photographer. However, none of the books is about Knipl. He is merely the lens through which we view the city; he's a flaneur in the urban streets of New York City. (Though it isn't named as such, the city is clearly a somewhat distorted version of NYC, Katchor's hometown.) The first Knipl book is Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (1991). It introduces the template that Katchor will expand upon in his subsequent work: a man aimlessly exploring the avenues and alleys of a metropolis, which appears to be stocked with an endless supply of peculiar shops and characters.

By Katchor's second book, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, he had perfected his distinctive, pitch-perfect style. Somehow, his affectionate, quasi-nostalgic depiction of urban curiosities never devolves into mere schtick. He makes old things new; he makes familiar objects unfamiliar. Maybe if legendary NYC poet (and occasional art critic) John Ashbery could draw, he would produce comics like this.

We looked through the first pages of Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer to find an example of what we liked about it. We wanted to flag nearly every page that we read. In the end, our example is from a page that we didn't remember from earlier readings in the book. It's fairly representative of what Katchor is doing. It's called "A Change of Name and Address" (click on the image to see it more clearly).

Here are a few observations about this one-page story: The text at the top of the page in the first four panels are essentially one long sentence that follows the flow of "a stream of amniotic fluid" down a street. First, we are shown a "transient's hotel." Then, we are shown "an unemployment agency offering unfamiliar, low paying-jobs." We see a man standing in front of the agency, reading a few of the jobs currently posted: "seven-layer cake worker - $8K, ball-point pen starters - $10K, measles groom - $7K." (FYI, Katchor's stories are brimming with lists.) The first two menial jobs make sense to us, but we haven't thought about them before. Now we are thinking about them, just like the man in the fourth panel, who asks, "What do I know about starting ball-point pens? I feel like a newborn baby." The third job ("measles groom") makes no sense to us. We understand both words, but they don't seem to belong together. What does a measles groom do and who would willingly work as a measles groom for $7,000/yr? (These jobs are all very, very low-paying.) In the third panel, we see that there is "a sale on permanently shined work shoes and belts monogrammed with the letter 'A'." Only the belts monogrammed with the letter 'A' are on sale? Strange. In the fifth panel, we see that the man who mentioned starting ball-point pens is talking to Julius Knipl. (Knipl tends to listen rather than talk.) After saying that he "feel[s] like a newborn baby," the man says that he's "even changing his name to Abra ... er ... to something else." We suspect he was going to say "Abraham," but stopped himself. Why? Did he suddenly remember the disturbing story of Abraham and Isaac? Did he think the name was too Jewish? (The character Julius Knipl is clearly Jewish. Interestingly, when Katchor was approached by a magazine to write a comic strip for them, they thought that Julius Knipl -- isn't that an extremely Jewish-sounding name? Apparently, the word Knipl means "nest egg" in Yiddish -- wasn't Jewish enough. To avoid any confusion, Katchor gave his next strip the unambiguous title The Jew of New York.) At the end of the strip, we are told that "A barge, carrying all the birth certificates issued in the year 1948, is towed out to sea." Is this a non sequitur? Is it related to the man who is changing his name? Is it related to the fact that Israel became an independent country in 1948?

This story begins with an allusion to birth (amniotic fluid is the substance surrounding an embryo); then, a man mentions feeling like a newborn baby (this emotion is associated with starting ball-point pens, which are filled with a fluid); next, we learn that birth certificates are being "towed out to sea" (the sea being, of course, another fluid). We don't want to overstate it, but there are some interesting associations happening here. But they are not immediately apparent. (In fact, we didn't notice them until we started typing.) Looking at the story now, it reads almost like a ghazal. (Briefly and reductively, a ghazal is an ancient Arabic poetic form that progresses in couplets based on association rather than logic. That's what we think a ghazal is anyhow. We could be very, very wrong.) Hence, we are again in the land of poetry.

If you want to read something by Katchor, start with Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer. It will amuse and amaze.

The Jew of New York shows Katchor taking what he has learned from his Knipl strip and applying it to a book-length comic set in nineteenth century New York. It is a freewheeling, delightful work packed with bizarre, fascinating characters. One of our favourites is Francis Oriole, a man who plans to carbonate Lake Erie and pipe soda water into the homes of all Americans. Another favourite is Maurice Cougar, a "lost Jew" living in the wilderness; he leases trapping equipment, invests in beaver pelts, and obsesses over an actress named Miss Patella, though he has no interest whatsoever in watching live theatrical productions.

In Katchor's book, The Jew of New York is a play being performed about Mordecai Noah, a man who attempted (and failed) to create "a city of refuge for the Jews" on an island in New York State. He is the sort of figure that Paul Collins might write about. Here is the first page of The Jew of New York (click on the image to zoom):

We won't analyze this page. We will simply say that The Jew of New York is definitely worth reading. It is more challenging and ambitious than Katchor's Knipl books. We love Knipl, but it's great to see Katchor trying (and very much succeeding) in a denser, longer format. If the Knipl works are like poetry, The Jew of New York is like an illustrated novel.

Other reading/listening/viewing:

Katchor's other two books -- Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (1991) and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District (2000) -- are wonderful. They're just not quite as wonderful as the two books that we've recommended above.

Katchor's website includes information on a variety of his projects. An interesting early project involved adapting some of the Knipl stories for radio (featuring Jerry Stiller). The website also includes links to some of his online comic strips.

Since publishing these four books, Katchor has collaborated on several musicals. In these productions, he generally writes the text and creates drawings that are projected on the stage. So far, he's collaborated on five musicals, including The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, or, The Friends of Dr. Rushower (2004) and A Check Room Romance (2009). (A list of Katchor's musicals can be seen here.)

Unfortunately, we have not seen any of these productions (aside from a few online clips), but we have the album for the "comic-strip opera" The Carbon Copy Building (recorded in 2000 and released in 2006; it features music by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe). (Despite the "comic-strip opera" tag, the music here is not what you would expect from a classical opera; this is a modern opera or -- do we have to say it? -- an avant-rock opera. The musical arrangements include keyboards, percussion, clarinets, distorted guitars, and soaring vocals.) The disc is nicely packaged and definitely worth a listen, but it's not meant to be listened to casually. You need to set aside 72:14 and spend time with the music and the attractive, Katchor-illustrated booklet. Among the characters in the opera are food embalmers and a carbon-copy-scented delivery boy. Katchor, ever the urban anthropologist, includes songs about eating utensils used by early bird diners and a glob of hardened chewing gum. In one song, the manager of the Palaver Building (Katchor has a fondness for the names of buildings and companies) sings, "When something doesn't work, it's removed, discarded, and replaced." (Broken and discarded objects appear throughout Katchor's work.) The album gains momentum with each song. In particular, some of the later songs are quite surprising (e.g., "August 13th," "Closing Slide Lecture"). The Carbon Copy Building is not meant for the Katchor novice, though. It should be approached only after you've absorbed the rest of his work. It belongs in a class called Advanced Studies in Katchor.

If you want to find out more about Katchor, the best place to start is Lawrence Weschler's profile of the cartoonist. It first appeared in the New Yorker (1993; the essay was called "A Wanderer in the Perfect City"), and it's in Weschler's excellent book A Wanderer in the Perfect City: Selected Passion Pieces (1998; this revised essay is called "Katchor's Knipl, Knipl's Katchor").

We recently emailed Ben Katchor to ask him if he had any books coming out in the near future. (We enjoy reading his strips online, but his detail-oriented drawings work better in print format. Plus, it's been nearly 10 years since his last book appeared.) He replied that a new book may be published in 2010. We really hope this happens. Regardless, we will read (and reread) whatever he produces. (Sorry this entry is so long. We just really, really like what Katchor is doing.)