Satanic Panic: Pop Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s - ed. Kier-La Janisse & Paul Corupe
Upon first hearing of this book, which began as a crowd-funded project by the folks at Spectacular Optical, I was chomping at the bit for its publication. Combining scholarly study with several of my great pop culture loves/fascinations (D+D, heavy metal, cult paranoia, and general 80s kitsch) and edited by the extremely knowledgeable Kier-La Janisse and Paul Corupe, the end result did not disappoint. As a child of the 80s, I vividly remember when fear of the spread of Satanism was so rampant that even the most benign childhood pastimes were subject to scrutiny by concerned adults. What better way for the devil to spread his message of sin than through board games, music, and cartoons aimed at kids? This paranoia continues in some circles even today, but reached a fever-pitch in the 80s, when devil-worship was to blame for a range of societal ills on a scale comparable only to the war on drugs of the same era. Writer and film programmer Janisse also happens to be one of the founders of Montreal’s Blue Sunshine Psychotronic Film Centre, an institution whose passing I mourn on at least a weekly basis, though it has been gone for years. I will wait impatiently for whatever work she publishes next! See this review by Naben Ruthnum for more on the wonderful Satanic Panic.
Conditions on the Ground - Kevin Hooyman
At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I loved so much about this book - I simply found myself carrying it everywhere, unable to stop reading, no matter how impractical the location. (Ever try to read something laugh-aloud-funny while eating a bowl of piping hot soup in a crowded cafe where most patrons are studying in silence? I do not recommend!) Upon reflection, I think it was the constant juxtapositions: stripped-down line drawings paired with lushly detailed nature scenes; lowbrow potty-humour mixed in with serious and profound musings. There are some real gems in this collection, including a troupe of cheerleaders gripped by existential despair, a man who learns a hard lesson about preparedness when he is driven from his home after opening a can of something so foul and pungent that he is forced to flee buck naked into the street to escape the toxic stench, as well as all manner of fantastic monsters. By turns profound and profane, these comics made embarrass myself on numerous occasions because I kept laughing uncontrollably in public, as aforementioned! Though Hooyman has a true knack for conveying hilarious scenes in simple line drawings, he possesses a broad expressive range; for every giggle induced by a butt-joke of some kind, there’s another panel that resonates on a deep, gut-wrenching level.
The Story of the Lost Child - Elena Ferrante
In light of the mountains of praise heaped on these books by all and sundry, I’ll be brief, but adamant, in my recommendation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. They’ve enjoyed an enormous readership, and their widespread acclaim is well-merited. If you have not yet had the pleasure of reading these, then let me add my small voice to the chorus of those urging you to do so! A word of caution: the characters might just stick with you long after you finish the books - which, if you are like most Ferrante fans, will not take long because you will read them all in a whirlwind and be unable to rest until you turn the last page, heaving a sigh of despair that they’re finished. Prepare to enter the Ferrante-vortex, where your normal circadian rhythms cease to exist!
Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels - ed. Tom Devlin
Own-horn-tooting alert! I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again - this tremendous beauty of a book is a must-read for anyone interested in independent comics. The collection spans Drawn & Quarterly’s 25 year history, celebrating the work of the amazing cartoonists in our catalogue. Tracing D+Q from its origins in Chris Oliveros’ Mile End apartment, through to its present incarnation as one of the world’s premier comics publishers, including heaps of new comics, essays from literary luminaries, and previously unpublished ephemera, this book is truly all-things D+Q. For a quarter century, this publishing house has been breaking the mold, giving voice to innovative artists, and carving out a much-deserved space for graphic novels and comics in the broader literary world. My talented colleagues worked like demons on this, and it really shows in all of the details - the book is as meticulously curated as it is beautifully presented. Makes me beam with pride to be part of such a team!
Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings - Shirley Jackson
Like many readers, I came to the work of Shirley Jackson via her short story, The Lottery, which is as far as I know still canonical in high school English classes. It left an impression on my young mind, and I have had a soft spot for her writing ever since. If you know Jackson primarily as a short story writer, this collection might surprise you, as it contains a lot of nonfiction as well. Nobody does creepy like she does, and her ability to infuse the mundane with the macabre is unparalleled. Though she’s most famous for her eerie short stories, her essays are equally well crafted, offering biting critiques of gender roles and domestic life. With more than 40 previously unpublished works selected by Jackson’s children from her archives at the Library of Congress, this Let Me Tell You offers a fresh take on an iconic writer’s legacy.
Killing and Dying - Adrian Tomine
At the risk of stating the obvious/preaching to the choir, let me say that Adrian Tomine’s latest is remarkable. His immaculate illustrations are matched by his flawless pacing, using silence as judiciously as he uses words and images to convey the stories. Visually, the book is striking in every way; I particularly love the muted colour scheme he uses in the full-colour stories, and that vellum dust-jacket is truly a thing of beauty. His work plays with the fine line between tragedy and comedy, so the emotional weight of the stories never feels heavy-handed. This collection is infused with so much pathos that although all the stories are fictional, they feel totally real. Tomine keeps getting better and better, and it comes as no surprise to see Killing and Dying cropping up on so many “best of” lists this year, compiled by reviewers much more illustrious than this one!
The Big Green Tent - Ludmila Ulitskaya
I must admit that I haven’t finished The Big Green Tent yet, but I know already that it deserves a place on my top 10 list. It’s an ambitious, dense novel, to which the term “Dickensian” has been attributed in multiple reviews, and hence the perfect choice for the upcoming holidays when I plan to immerse myself in it fully. Set in Moscow just after the death of Stalin, it chronicles the friendship of three dissidents coming of age in the cold war era, as well as the lives of a huge cast of “C-list extras” who crop up throughout the generation-sprawling narrative. What can I say? I love Russian lit, and I need to fill that bildungsroman void left in my heart after finishing Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels!
Cat Diary: Yon & Mu - Junji Ito
Though Junji Ito is best known as a horror manga artist, it turns out he can also pull off depictions of the sweet and quotidien with equal aplomb. Indeed, there is nothing scary at all about Yon & Mu, an entirely charming autobiographical account of the author’s transition from self-described dog person to reluctant cat parent. Much to Ito’s chagrin, he learns that his fiancée and her beloved cat Yon come as a package deal, thus he finds himself cohabitating with the dreaded feline, whose “accursed face” and skull markings haunt Ito. These depictions of Yon belie the author’s horror manga sensibilities, as he manages to make an ordinary cat appear downright sinister! Soon after Yon takes up residence, Mu, a sweet Norwegian Forest kitten joins the fold, and it’s not long before the two leave their mark on Ito’s once pristine home, and jealous battles over territory and affection ensue. Despite many misgivings, Yon and Mu gradually worm their way into the author’s heart, as evidenced by his teary-eyed joy upon hearing that Yon sleeps with a pile of his dirty laundry while he’s away! Anyone who has had the pleasure (and occasional pain) of cohabitating with cats will relate to the experiences depicted here. I particularly enjoyed Ito’s drawing style, rendering moments with Yon and Mu in all of their cute, funny details. A short, but poignant story sure to warm the hearts of cat-lovers everywhere.
Bluetiful - Daphné B.
I tend not to be too adventurous in my poetry reading habits, and usually only wander into the poetry section when I’m feeling particularly melancholic or romantic. (Being a bred in the bone Sylvia Plath fan is likely the source of this proclivity!) Though I’m admittedly only a mere dabbler poetry, I thoroughly enjoyed Daphné B’s new collection, Bluetiful, from Montreal publisher l’Écrou. Her voice is singular, yet totally relatable, and her poems run the emotional gamut. Her use of language makes her work a joy to read, even for a non-native French speaker like myself! In just a few spare lines, her poems capture "all the feels." (To invoke the internet parlance of 2015 seems appropriate here, the time-capsule nature of year end lists being what it is.)
SuperMutant Magic Academy (Jillian Tamaki)
A consistently funny, clever, and endearing look at adolescence from the always amazing Jillian Tamaki. With teen angst aplenty, the kids of the SuperMutant Magic Academy navigate the peaks and valleys of high school. (Even magical powers can't save one from the banalities, indignities, and heartaches of adolescence, it seems!) Oh, and there are also a lot of references to tabletop roleplaying games (Dungeons and Dragons, to be sure, but also some *even nerdier* games if I’m not mistaken) which is a surefire way to win my heart! Most of the strips are just a page or two long, so if you only have time for a quick browse on your break at work, or for a few stops on the metro, this is a great choice. That being said, there are also longer story arcs that give it continuity as a graphic novel. Immanently relatable and so much fun, you can read this book on repeat and find new enjoyment each time.
And make sure to check out the other staff picks!
Helen // Kate // Daphné // Saelan // Chantale // Kira // Julie // Alyssa