Every Friday, we share which books, audiobooks, and comics have been keeping us company throughout the week. This week: A graphic novel about the intersection between comics and wine, apocalyptic literary fiction from Change-rae Lee, a cycle of poems about the life of Kanye West, and more.
Shaenon: I love comics and I love wine, often simultaneously. So how could I resist this stunning French graphic novel devoted to both passions? Cartoonist Étienne Davodeau apprentices himself to winemaker Richard Leroy, who teaches him everything from trellising to barrel-making to organic farming. In return, Davodeau introduces Leroy to the world of comics, taking him on a tour of his publisher and introducing him to artists.
Each man loves his craft to the point of obsession. Davodeau makes a game attempt to learn the subtleties of wine, while Leroy, a gruff bear of a man, is baffled by the comic books Davodeau assigns him to read. But the two jobs aren’t so different; each is a mixture of skill and instinct, each has its conventions and critics and rival schools of thought, each requires something ineffable to achieve greatness. What starts out as a wacky mismatch—comic books and grapevines—becomes a diary of two artists hashing out the question of what makes art worthwhile.
Ashley: I was not prepared for We Were Liars. I knew it was one of the biggest YA books of the past year and, according to Maggie Stiefvater, a “twisty thing.” I knew it was written poetically, which makes it a delight to listen to. I knew it was about a girl, Cadence Sinclair Eastman, from a rich WASP-y family (in case you couldn’t tell from her name) that does rich WASP-y things, like take vacations on their private island that has three houses. This little bit of foreknowledge admittedly turned me off—I already watched all of Gossip Girl, do I really need more rich people problems in my life?—but the way Lockhart handles it is gripping and surprising.
Her depiction of the idle rich is unsentimental and unsparing. Money pits family members against one another, Cadence and her cousins refuse to play by the rules and mantras set out for them by their parents and grandfather. As interfamily politics reach a fever pitch, a fire on the island takes out one of the three houses, and with it, Cadence’s memory. As she slowly recalls what happened, the horrors compound into a truly shocking twist that’s as terribly compelling as a Bentley crashing into a tree.
Alex P: It’s tempting to compare Chang-rae Lee’s beautifully eerie literary dystopian novel to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Both bend the expectations and perceived limitations of literary fiction and dystopian sci-fi; both eschew the more overt tropes of the latter genre, painting a picture of a future that is quietly devastating in its realism. In both novels, the future presented is less shocking in its outlandishness than shocking in its feasibility, in how terribly easy it is to see us in them.
In On Such a Full Sea, that recognition comes in the extreme social stratification of his future America. The story begins in B-Mor, a city placed squarely in the middle of the tripartite social classes. B-Mor, it becomes apparent, was once Baltimore—its creepily well-maintained subterranean mall and work camp atmosphere revered by current occupants for having grown out of a city that, they are taught, became unlivable due to the extremes of poverty, neglect, and implied climate change, hundreds of years previously. The story, in fact, is narrated by the collective residents of B-Mor, in an eerily subjunctive mood that only allows the swelling unrest of the city to shine through in glimpses. The focus on a future Baltimore is especially apt given recent events. It’s uncomfortably easy to see how the current system of power abused, freedom denied, and minority rights trampled could one day evolve to look like B-Mor.
Dystopian fiction works when it reflects back our own worst selves, walking a fine balance between escapism and cautionary tale, fantasy as much as wake-up call. On Such a Full Sea achieves both with a grace, subtlety, and realism that makes these reminders of the precariousness of our world more palatable, if no less devastating.
Justin: What exactly does Sarah Blake, a pregnant Jewish poet living outside Philadelphia, see of herself in the megastar Kanye West? This strange and wonderful cycle of poems doesn’t provide an answer so much as it enacts one. In “The Fallible Face,” Emmanuel Levinas is “featured” like a guest collaborator, and the existentialist philosopher’s lines form an unexpected counterpoint to Blake’s own. In “The Week Kanye Joined Twitter,” she blends images of ostentatious wealth with visions of nymphs in a way that somehow elevates both.
Like the best hip hop artists, Blake is a skilled remixer, borrowing lines both famous and obscure, sacred and (occasionally very) profane, revealing alternate meanings by way of skillful juxtaposition. In addition to sampling Kanye’s own lyrics and quotes, she also borrows from Greek mythology, Twilight, and YouTube comments. The result is a consistently surprising meditation on what it means to identify with an artist.