Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People by Joe Ollmann – A Review

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People
Joe Ollmann
Conundrum Press, 2014, 242 pg


Joe Ollmann’s  graphic novel, Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People, is really a collection of short stories in the best sense of the word, rich in character and structure. Moreover, his work includes a broad range of characters that stretches his writing from the sometimes insular biographical approach of other graphic novelists. The dedication to his characters is what makes the collection, and the lack of any self congratulatory nods, is what makes the collection strong.

The collection contains eight stories, which split into two rough themes: adults facing a present over-saturated with the past, and kids trying to understand the present. As overwrought as those kind of stories could be, there is a heavy does of humor in Ollmann’s work. In Oh Deer a nebbish office worker agrees to go on a hunting trip with his coworkers as part of a bonding event. As someone who has never had a gun or even thought of hunting, he is initially elated when he shoots a deer. But when he takes it home he finds himself burdened with a corpse he doesn’t know what to do with. From there he goes into epic efforts to dispose of the deer, ending in a late night of digging in his back yard.

In a more hopeful vain, Hang Over, shows a man whose life is has come to nothing (several of Ollmann’s characters are in this position, but thankfully not all). His alcoholic mother ends up in the hospital and leaves his adult brother who is developmentally disabled alone. He has to step in an and take care of the brother. It is something he hates, thinks is a burden, and wants to hand off to anyone he can. He is a total mess: drinks too much, lost his girlfriend. While the story could easily veer into maudlin sentimentality a la disabled brother makes drunk sober up, Ollmann is careful to keep the story grounded in a deeper reality. One where the brother is conflicted in both directions and not able to truly understand his bothers capabilities. It gives the story a sense of ambiguity.

Ollmann is equally good at capturing the lives of teenagers are the brink of a change. In They Filmed a Movie Here Once, Ollmann draws a Catholic girl whose mother has died and lives with her father who has taken to drinking at night. It is a lonely life, one she fills with the church, but she also wants to love. But here Catholicism puts her in conflict with the two guys she meets. One would like to have sex, but she is against that. She is too strict for that (there is a scene where she goes to confession and admits to swearing). The other guy she likes confesses she has stolen something. In each case she dreams of the men, but each is a disappointment. All the while she is alone. Her father doesn’t truly understand and the women she works with in a diner are too hard bitten to help. Ollmann’s interweaving of humor, disappointment, and lingering hope make this one of his better stories. He is at his best when he can find the right mix of the three.

Ollmann’s work is the right mix of humor and disappointment, one that doesn’t dwell in hopelessness, but finds its just something that sits at the margin. Its how his characters deal with the disappointments that propel his stories .

Amsterdam Stories by Nescio – A Review

Amsterdam Stories
Damion Searls, trans
New York Review of Books, 161 pg.

The Dutch author Nescio wrote little over his 79 years, publishing what amounts to a small collection of short stories and a fragment of a novel, itself published as a story. The paucity of his work is both refreshing (no late career disappointments here) and disappointing, for the brilliance of his writing, rendered in Damion Searls excellent translation, leaves one asking, what if there were more? Or maybe its best he left us with his indelible poets and dreamers who are forever watching the colors of the countryside from a Dutch dike.

His reputation rests on three short stories: The Freeloader, Young Titans, and Little Poet. All were written during the 1910-19 and describe the lives of bohemian young me living on the margin and dreaming of become an artistic success. It may sound like well trod ground, but the quality of his writing, almost elegiac, less interested in the physical life, and focused on the spiritual, gives his work a transcendent quality, one that puts you in the same melancholic longing that is part of his reoccurring characters. In The Freeloader, Japi, a man who tries his best to do nothing, lives from friend to friend, handout to handout, trying to do as little as possible. This isn’t the pose of the idle rich who go from event to event, but say they do nothing. Japi just sits and does nothing. Early on he describes himself:

“I am nothing and I do nothing. Actually I do much too much. I;m busy overcoming the body. The best thing is to just sit still; going places and thinking are only for stupid people. I don’t think either. It’s too bad I have to eat and sleep. I’d rather spend all day and all night just sitting.”

In Japi’s case its something he does rather well. But in Necio’s stories it isn’t something glamours. There’s always the physical realities that impinge on his characters: the weather, the lack of food, the lack of sleep. The only thing that allows a freeloader to survive is exactly what they eschew: money. Nevertheless, Japi’s strange appearances and disappearances, his selfish finishing of the narrator’s last bit of food, tea, or tobacco, all have a certain strange charm. But like most of Nescio’s characters, that freedom is short lived. The narrator notes, Japi wanted to “[s]moke a couple cigars, chat a little…enjoy the sunshine,” but the narrator also knows

You can’t sustain that. He knew [Japi] that. It couldn’t last, it was impossible, you’d need a mountain of money. And he didn’t have one. What his old man might leave him wasn’t worth the trouble. And he, Japi, thought that was just fine. Now he spent his time staring. It’s not like it’s possible to accomplish anything anyway.

The same sense of hopeful youth meeting an indifferent reality permeates The Young Titans. In this story, the narrator, Koekebakker (Cookie Baker), the same narrator through most of the stories, describes the excitement and slow disillusion of hope as he and his friends see their great plans come to nothing.

We were kids-but good kids. If I may say so myself. We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic…Was there anything we didn’t want to set to rights? We would show them how it should be.

But life doesn’t go as the men want and they slowly disappear into lives of seeming respectability, their art and works abandoned. Its a melancholy that is pitted against an empty and yet beautiful natural world. If society with its rich men and poor artists is a given, then the cruelest of all things is the countryside.

Every day we longed for something, without knowing what. It got monotonous. Sunrise ans sunset and sunlight on the water and behind the drifting while clouds-monotonous-and the darker skies too, the leaves turning brown and yellow, the bare treetops and poor-soggy fields in the winter-all the things I had seen so many times and though about so many times while I was gone and would see again so many more times, as long as I didn’t die. Who can spend his life watching all these things that constantly repeat themselves, who can keep longing for nothing? Trusting in a God who isn’t there?

The search for a meaning is always there. The search for God, or the seeing of God in little things is a constant refrain. In this sense Nescio’s work reflects back on the romantics who saw something divine in the natural. With Nescio its more of a loss, then a discovery. But when God is revealed in a beautiful sunshine there is a sense of animation in the characters, it is what gives them the spark. Only when they return to the city does that spark dull, grow grey, covered in mud, and diminished to the imperatives to find a cigar or a lump of coal for the fireplace. Ultimately, it is that constant battle rendered in careful prose that makes Nescio’s stories so beautiful.

Perhaps brevity is best, but I can’t help but wish that Nescio published a little more.


Los mares del Sur (The Southern Seas) by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán – A Review

Los mares del Sur (The Southern Seas)
Manuel Vázquez Montalbán
Planeta, 1979, 220 pg

Los mares del Sur is the fourth of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho detective novels.  1979 Planeta Prize winning novel is considered as one of his best and it representative of the popular series, filled with all the quirks that made Vázquez Montalbán’s novels popular: food, social commentary, a picture of Spain at a moment of great change. Much like great noir from American authors like James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, Los mares del Sur is not just a detective story; it is something more: a picture of Spain during the transition from dictatorship to democracy. It is the combination of an intriguing and memorable detective with a well drawn Barcelona that makes Los mares del Sur a vital novel.

The mystery is Stuart Pedrell, a wealthy businessman who goes missing. The family calls in Carvalho to search for him. There is a suggestion that he had abandoned everything and had gone to live on an island in the South Seas. From this simple request, Carvalho begins his exploration of Barcelona society. The wife is cold and more interested in his wealth. His closest friends don’t seem to care much about him either. It’s more important that Carvalho keep up appearances. Carvalho’s investigations, though, bring him to a working class barrio where Pedrell has been moonlighting as an accountant and setting himself up in an apartment in the same neighborhood. The discovery of the apartment leads to one of the most detailed description of detection as Carvalho goes from cafe to cafe looking for someone who’d known him. Ultimately, the search brings him to his young, pregnant lover who only knew him as the accountant, not a wealthy man. Her hostility to Carvalho’s investigations mirror those throughout the book as the wealthy who had profited from the Franco regime face the coming of democracy. She has no interest in Carvalho’s ideas of duty. She has her own life and doesn’t care much about the rich who have paid him. The tension between these worlds animates the tension, and, finally, the conclusion.

That scant outline, of course, is, like most great detective stories, almost inconsequential. Los mares del Sur certainly holds together as a mystery and the conclusion makes sense. Nevertheless, it is Pepe Carvalho who is the real focus. Carvalho is one of the great fictional detectives like Phillip Marlowe or Sherlock Holmes, at once recognizable and uniquely his own character. His most obvious trait is his precise and biting descriptions of Spanish society as it goes through its transition to democracy. They alternate with Vázquez Montalbán’s third person narration which adds another level of commentary. Each provides a prescient criticism of all strata of society, although Carvalho himself is an ex-communist who did time in prison and whose some-time girlfriend is a prostitute. It is a fossilized and brittle Barcelona he encounters, still stuck, in many ways, in the past. Carvalho, like the best detectives, has no illusions about the past, and although he is not a hard boiled detective, he has a hard edge.

Carvalho, as well as Vázquez Montalbán, was a well known gourmet and all the books in the series are filled with references to food. Carvalho is always drinking a white wine or discussing food. And there are several stretches given over to cooking. In one section there is a detailed description of making a shrimp omelette. In another, as he, his butler Biscuter, and several friends discuss the case, they make an elaborate dinner that is described in great detail. The love of food is one of the classic Carvalho elements.

Los mares is an humorous and meta novel. In one chapter Carvalho stumbles on to a noir novel talk presentation from a professor. Vázquez Montalbán both describes what noir fiction is about, and also makes fun of the genre. It lends a level of criticism and self-awareness to the novel that is refreshing. Yes, the novel is criticism, but it is also understood that the noir genre can be over imbued with meaning that is not necessarily there.

Fortunately, for English readers Melvile House published a translation in 2012. Several other of his books are available in English.

También esto pasará (This Will Also Pass) by Milena Busquets – A Review

También esto pasará (This Will Also Pass)
Milena Busquets
Anagrama, 2015, 179 pg

I go back and forth on this book, and have done it for a while. And still I can’t quite decide what I think of it. At times it is the story of a woman grieving for her difficult mother and at others its a wandering tale of self discovery, each of which are intertwined and form an analysis of the narrator. A wildly successful book in its 6th printing (when I bought it), También esto pasará is a short book whose brevity is at first charming, then later, disappointing.

Blanca, the narrator, has lost her mother recently. It is a profound loss, one that marks her narration with pain and a longing for a time past. She describes it in a resonant detail, finding in the ordinary, the smell of her mother in her sweater, for example, traces to a woman who is no longer there. It is both a chance to find solace and loss. Blanca is also willing to describe more than the safe notes of grief. In one passage she notes,

Que yo sepa, lo único que no da resaca y que disipa momoentáneamente la muerte—también la vida—es el sexo.

I know the only thing that doesn’t give you a hangover and momentarily relives the pain of death—and life—is sex.

She has an outlook that is both irreverent, but also longing for a closeness, whether with her mother or an old love, that does not exist. In this balancing act, Busquets creates a character who can describe how the loss permeates everything around her.

Unfortunately, Blanca decides to take a trip to the Catalan coast where her family has a house. She brings her family, and one of her exes. The journey itself is not at issue, but the seeming lack of motion. When she’s in Barcelona she’s exploring the past. On the coast she sits still and the explorations seem to stop. Instead, the banal life of the coast overtakes one and leave her in a state where she spends time with old lovers, makes new friends. None of it amounts to much in terms of action or insight. At best it is a return to the normal.

Ultimately, we come back to where I started: a mixed review. Busquets is unable to sustain Blanca’s irreverent and searching tone. Perhaps more development of the later part of the novel would help, but Busquets seems to have been unable to resolve a story that never has a true end: grief. It’s a challenge she handles well at first, but as the need for resolution comes can’t find the right touch.

Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus – A Review

Beneath the Underdog
Charles Mingus

This book has been called both a Beat novel and a testament of the Civil Rights struggle. What I’ve never heard it called is an autobiography of  a musician. If you’ve never heard anything about the book, you would be right in thinking you’ll read about his approach to music, how he came to be the musician he was. He played with all the greats, created some great recordings, and yet when you read the book its almost a second thought. Except for a refreshingly detailed account of working with Earl Hines, there is very little about music.

Then what is it? Calling it a Beat novel is probably most apropos. There is certainly an almost juvenile consequence free braggadocio that you find in some of the worst of Kerouac. With Mingus, like Kerouac, his treatment and depiction of women is horrible. There is a certain comedy when he talks about how virile he is and how long he could have sex. Who knows if any of it is true. It’s written as a form of porn. Where it breaks down is his life as a pimp and his joy in turning rich white women in to prostitutes. Certainly, there is something transgressive in an African American jazz musician not only having relationships with white women—this was still the era of miscegenation laws—but becoming their pimp, turning the racial-sexual politics on its head. But the book isn’t about transgression per-say. It’s too glib. It’s about the fun of prostitution. It’s about sexual contest. It’s about the dream life of Mingus. And ultimately, it’s about using women, treating them sort of thing to play with and dispose of later.And when you turn your supposed life long love, an African American woman, into a prostitute I’m not exactly sure what you are.

Again, this is not a reflective book, despite Mingus’ occasional reflective abilities, and it is a shame because it starts out that way, describing his childhood in Watts, the racism he encountered, the lives of Japanese, Mexican, and African American residents of his mixed neighborhood. Here is also where he talks about music—he was a cello player—with something like passion and gives you just the slightest feel for the future musician. His picture of 1920s LA has a vibrancy and spark that is missing in later parts of the book. It is the first 50 pages or so that feel true, whether they are or not, and given his early sexual exploits rendered in such detail, its hard to believe some of it. But there is a there there.

Autobiographies are seldom a list of facts, and given the structure of the book, it is even harder to take this as, at best, an impressionistic account of his past (the veracity of the book has been called into question in many places). The book is written in the third person. Mingus is called “my man”. In the youthful sections, the third person is used as a reflective agent, putting distance between Mingus the author and Mingus the character. The device allows him to not only narrate, but to comment on his life. When he becomes an adult, though, the book becomes a series of dialogs, full of hipster-isms and seeming in jokes. Of course the dialog is artificial, a novelization of his experiences, and instead of giving him a reflective distance turns the book into the kind of braggadocio I mentioned earlier.

Whoever said Beneath the Underdog was a Beat novel was on point. Even though there are redeeming elements I often felt I was reading On the Road the Complete Scroll for good, and a lot of bad. As a literary experiment there is something there but overall it is a misguided book.

The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman – A Review

Neuman-The-Things-We-Dont-DoThe Things We Don’t Do
Andrés Neuman
Tran Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia
Open Letter, 2015, pg 190

When thinking about the short work of Andrés Neuman one word comes to me: joy. In all of his stories, no matter how dark or emotive, you see an author at work who loves the exploration of the power of the short story. In his meta fictions it is most obvious he is fascinated by language and story, but even when looking at the loss of a parent, or the hazing of young recruit, I find a belief in the power of  just a few pages to create fragments of a larger world that exists just at the edge of the page. If one is willing to engage in the search, the varied stories of this collection will show a writer who is both capable of literary invention and bringing out the power of the little moments his characters experience, both profound, brief, and, thankfully, absent edifying epiphanies. In Neuman’s hands, a short story is where one goes to work out a single idea, often quite short. The joy is in that search, the experience of being in the story and finding the same potential in it that he does.

The first story, Happiness, completely captures the joy in Andrés’ work. In it the narrator, Marcos, relates how he would like to be like Cristobal:

He is my friend; I was going to say my best friend, but I have to confess he is the only one.

At first it is an innocuous statement or friendship. But Marcos continues to describe how he envies Cristobal because he sleeps with his wife. From the story descends into the hapless monologue of a man who wants to take control of something he’ll never control. It is the kind of inversion of control that can show up in Neuman’s work, where the expected is reversed.

Happiness shows the reversal in a more overt and comedic way, where as Delivery takes a more lyric turn, following the alternating anguish and joy of a man right before his first child is born. He flies from idea to idea, never falling into sentimentality, yet finding in the coming a birth both a union with the new life, his and the child’s, and separation with his old one. Neuman deftly captures the anxiety and excitement at such a moment, and the translation deftly captures the wild exuberance of the one sentence that twists and double backs on itself, leaving the reader in a twisting labyrinth of emotion.

Included within are two stories that pay homage to Borges’ ideas. In one he describes a literary lecture by Borges where all the participants come dresses in gold clothing. The lecture itself is uninteresting and unimportant. What matters is that as a group they left an impression on Borges. The story is an echo of a Borges’ quote, I am going to cause a tiger,” and the story ends as the narrator notes that the audience caused a tiger. It’s a story that expands a Borges idea, both in the sense of a literary essay and the creation of the literary character, Borges. It is indicative of a fascination with the work of Borges and his interest in the writer himself.

The Poem -Translating Machine follows on another theme that you kind find in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. In the story, a poet tries to have one of his poems translated. The translation is a disaster, but instead of trying again, he asks a friend to translate the translation. Although the results are unimpressive and don’t match his work, he continues to pass the various translation on to other translators, going back and forth between the various languages. Eventually, a translator returns a poem to him that is just like his. While, Menard republishes the same thing and it is just the times that make it seem different, here it is the different approaches to language that shifts the meaning and brings out the fluidity of language, making both the point that translation is near impossible, and any writing, even in its original is open to many shifting meanings. It is one Neuman’s celebratory explorations of language and writing, one that makes it clear that he takes a great interest in how meaning shifts.

The Things We Don’t Do collects stories that have appeared in four Spanish language collections of short stories (links are to my reviews, and include descriptions of some of the stories included within): Hacerse el muerto, Alumbramiento, El ultimo minuto, and El que espera. (My one complaint with this collection is there is no indication which story came from which collection) It is divided into several sections, but follow the typical Neuman pattern: stories that are less meta, more interested in character and relationships; literary commentary that can explore a literary idea or just celebrate literature; and epigrams about writing short stories, which are a must read for any short story writer, even if you don’t agree with all of them. In The Things We Don’t Do, the weighting is towards the first type, but every type of story gets its due. My only other complaint is I would have liked to have seen the inclusion of Policial cubista (Cubist Police Officer), which is one of my favorite stories, but that is a small thing. The translation is sharp and well done. The only thing I took exception to was the use of the word “wimp” in Man Shot, instead of the stronger gay epithet that appears in the original and gives a deeper meaning to the story.

The Things We Don’t Do is an excellent introduction to the short stories of Andrés Neuman and will reward any reader with a delightful array of stories.

Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo – A Reivew

Citizen 13660
Miné Okubo
University of Washington Press, 2014, pg 219 pages

Cleaning Stable for Bedroom
Cleaning a Stable for a Bedroom

Citizen 13660, originally published in 1946, was one of the first accounts of the Japanese-American internment during World War II. It is also one of the first graphic novels. It is a work of both historical and artistic importance, one that gives an early voice to the same of the camps and helps set a new approach for visual narrative.

While comic books had existed in some form or another for at least 10 years, newspaper comics for nearly 50, and there were more serious narrative works from authors like Lynd Ward and Frans Masreel during the 30s, an actual graphic novel that we recognize today did not exist. Okubo’s work is not a true graphic novel either, at least in a modern sense. It is a more transitional work. Like Ward and Masreel, she uses single wordless panels to narrate her work, but unlike them she also includes a textual description below. Where as Ward and Masreel had to use their drawings as narrative, Okubo is free to use her work as something more documentary, which is important because she is more focused on reportage, rather than fictional narrative. As such each image stands alone, as she were a photo-journalist. Many of the drawings don’t need a caption as they explain themselves, but the use of the caption expands the meaning of her drawings and weaves them into a narrative that brings the whole experience together.

Building Furniture
Building Furniture

It is the experience, of course, that is Okubo’s main preoccupation. An experience that she lived. In almost every panel she can be found somewhere. The two in this review show her quite clearly, but even in a great crowd scene she is clearly visible. It is at once autobiographical and a statement of power, as if she were saying, I know this because I was there. The visual approach can become sardonic, as when she shows a Caucasian spying through a peephole while she, in turn, is poking her head around a corner spying on him. It is in these moments she shows not only how the internees survived, but tired to take as much control of their own situation. You can’t stop a spy, but at least you can keep track of him.

Most of the drawings, though, are of daily life, both the indignities of the whole internment process, and the way the internees made the best of what they had to create a new life that put them in degrading and difficult circumstances. Okubo does not avoid any detail, from the way the bathrooms were configured for the women, to how they were forced to sleep in horse stables, whose smell was terrible. After spending several months at horse race track in California, she was sent to Topaz, Utah. Topaz was an inhospitable place, where wind storms blew alkaline sand everywhere and the winters were cold in their tar paper dormitories. Topaz, like Manzanar and other camps, was not placed in an area where anyone would want to live. Yet the internees built the best version of their lives they could. From baseball to sumo wrestling to gardening, they reestablished the culture they knew, both American and Japanese. They organized their own schools to make sure the children did not go without. Okubo was among many of the volunteer teachers.

The book ends with her release from the camp: “My thoughts shifted from the past to the future.” It is an abrupt end, but a fitting one for a work like this, whose power is in looking at the indignities of the internment. Moreover, there is nothing more that she can do in 1946, but bear witness. Certainly, there have been other works on the subject, but in its raw documentary form it is a vital account of the internment disaster.