Thursday, January 14, 2016

Lars Mytting, Norwegian Wood

If I may be so bold as to open this review with a fairly technical term from the world of literary criticism, Haruki Murakami, author of the acclaimed novel Norwegian Wood, can suck it. Quite simply, his is no longer the most interesting book of that name.

Image from
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You people can stop laughing any time, though. What's so funny about Lars Mytting's Norwegian Wood having the subtitle Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way, a subtitle that happens to be accurate and precise and without even the smallest shred of irony?

Fine. Yes.

Yes, I do see that this book is the perfect IKEA fake-book prop, perfect enough that not even IKEA would allow it on their shelves, and yes, the joke's on me for seeing it at Bolen Books before Christmas, thinking it'd be hilarious to buy it for my brother-in-law, and then having it turn up under my tree. ("Because you're a tree-hugging hippie with glasses! Right? Right?")

And especially for having it become one of the most pleasurable reads I've had in a long time.

Murakami can keep his ambiguity, his allusiveness, his narrative instability, because I appreciated Mytting's clarity of purpose in this book, mirroring the clarity he describes as essential to splitting logs: "The work requires your full and complete attention, and if it doesn't get it you might find the ax sticking out of your leg" (p96).

This version of Norwegian Wood is nonfiction and useful, stuffed with detail, but somehow it's neither a manual nor a handbook. A 25-page chapter about how different woods burn; a 25-pager about the history of axes and saws, plus current options for same; a 15-pager about how to dry firewood, plus how dry it should be (17% moisture, if you're wondering): somehow, with all this detail, Mytting's writing is so engaging as to approach addictiveness.

Estonian nuns climb ladders, annually,
to build these woodpiles. Lars Mytting says so.
It's killing me, for example, that I haven't yet used my oven to kiln-dry a few chunks of fresh firewood so that I can establish a baseline for how dry my current batch of firewood is getting outside. I can hardly believe that I don't have three different axes. I'm ashamed of just how unlike the image here is my tiny, fragmented, barely flammable woodpile: "Like the fermentation of beer, the seasoning of wood should be a slow and undisturbed natural process, untouched by the bustle of life elsewhere. The time it takes is the time it takes" (p.135).

Frankly, I suspect that I've started to become an elderly Scandinavian man. At one point Mytting explains that anthropological studies have confirmed that there's a measurable phenomenon in Scandinavia that's referred to colloquially as "the wood age" or "the wood bug." Later in life, men become obsessed with their woodpiles, enough that I don't think Viagra sells very well there, committed to splitting wood properly, drying it carefully, and stacking it immaculately. Swedish men over 65 living in the country, in fact, apparently spend an average of 98 hours per year in "firewood-related activity" (p97). I just hope my family's prepared for The Change.

And yes, of course I've seen Peter Kavanagh's loathing-filled complaint in The Walrus about all things Scandinavian: "At his best, Mytting delivers a clear exploration of Norway's wood fetish. But in so doing, he has made himself the fetishist-in-chief." Kavanagh's real objection, in true Walrus style, and in true-north-strong-and-free style too, is that there's not enough fetishizing of Canada. Rather than "Why Scandinavia?" (or "Why Portland?", come to that), Kavangh's real complaint beneath his presumably self-ironizing hater-ism about Lars Mytting and Norwegian Wood is "Why not Canada"?: we're just as hearty, we think of ourselves as similarly progressive, and damn it, we're just as weird under the surface, but somehow the whole world's reading Scandinavian detective fiction on IKEA couches!?!

Get over it, Peter. Canada's doing just fine. Let the Scandinavians have their fun.

Now, if anybody needs me....

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Joe Sacco, Journalism

Joe Sacco draws comics about the terrible, terrible things that humans do to each other, and to the places where we live. They depict horrible stories and activities, and if you don't read them, you may not quite correctly understand humanity or the human experiment.

Readers unused to comics about the darkness don't know what to do with Sacco's work, because neither Archie nor New Yorker essays can prepare you adequately for Sacco's graphic journalism, but that's precisely the point, a point that's lost a little bit on people who come to Sacco from artists whose drawings look like his (R. Crumb or Harvey Pekar, for example). In brief, they give us the illusion of immersive experience in the horrors of the modern, dropping us into Chechen refugee camps, historically corrupt villages in India, the Gaza Strip, and so on, and an open reader without pre-existing coping strategies for such imagery can be radicalized.

Well, no. Radicalization should have changed some things by now if the pieces collected in Journalism had had such an effect, and there's still room to improve things around here. Clearly, though, it's not Sacco's fault, because he's been doing his damnedest to make us pay attention, and then to do something about it. We're implicated in and by this comics journalism, immersed in the images as we are and yet failing and refusing to act.

But don't take my word for it: read in the Guardian, where it first appeared, the essay "Not in My Country" that also appears in Journalism.

Or maybe read Sacco's interview in The Believer, possibly the best fit between interviewer and publication since, well, who knows. (Maybe Vladimir Nabokov in Playboy? Who knows. Or cares. Sacco's interview is fantastic, is my point.)

Or maybe read Jeet Heer, something of a polarizing figure, admittedly, for his twitter-essays if nothing else, which everyone should stop selectively RT'ing into my timeline, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. Anyway, when Journalism first came out, Heer wrote effusively in the National Post about the book and its artist: "The images Sacco draws are so powerful that they burn deep into your retina and reconfigure how you see the world." Not how I'd put it, nor an ophthalmologist, neither, but point taken.

But presumably everyone knows Joe Sacco by now, so just add my name under the column "Fans."

Read this book. It's incredible. We're such a horrible, horrible species.

Reinhard Kleist, Castro

If I had to choose a single graphic novel to accompany my desert island discs, so to speak, it'd be Reinhard Kleist's biography of Johnny Cash, I See A Darkness. A remarkable book, seriously, for fans if not for the unenlightened, I See A Darkness is one of those works of art that help you understand what other works should always have been accomplishing. (And probably Cash's At San Quentin, Big Country's Steeltown, and Cowboy Junkies' desperately under-appreciated Whites Off Earth Now! [here's "State Trooper" if you don't believe me])

Kleist's bio-graphic novel Castro takes a similar approach, and for anyone keen on Castro and Cuba, it'd be a rewarding read. That's especially true about Kleist's handling of Cuba before the revolution, as well as Castro's activities during and immediately after the revolution (so roughly 1950 until 1963), where Kleist does a great job of rendering the man's energy and the complexity of Cuban politics both nationally and among the revolutionary forces. The basic structure follows the life of a German emigre, Karl Mertens, from his arrival in Cuba through his coverage of the conflict to his life in the conflicted and eternally collapsing and reviving country that's the standard view of Cuba; Mertens is a nice stand-in for Kleist, and for non-Cubans reading this book, though it does put the story at one remove from its subject.

I wish I liked the book more, though. Probably I was never going to appreciate a Kleist book as much as I did I See A Darkness, but that's the Cash effect rather than Kleist's fault. Still, some characters feel a bit interchangeable, both in their actions and in the rendering of their faces, and I just don't see that the Mertens character was essential to the novel. Kleist was presumably trying to represent Castro in all his looked-at-ness, his iconicity, but the Mertens character wasn't the only way to achieve that. Generally I assume that I'm failing to understand something about a book, when I don't like it as much as I should, so I trust I'll get remedied in the comments.

But if you want to see what Kleist thought of the book, here's an interview; the 9th Blog ("We love comics and want to share that love with you") loves them some Castro; and Arsenal Pulp Press is keen to get you into a copy of the book.