I read every night before I sleep, so there is always a small pile of books and comics on my bedside table. I have made a selection of these, which follows, omitting certain things that I am just not so fussed over, and will probably abandon before long. As well as those which will potentially do further harm to any already-tenuous allusions I may have to literary coolness or sophistication.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman/Jill Lepore
I’ve enjoyed this immensely. Not necessarily for Lepore’s writing so much as her attention to detail. Like many of the early superheroes, the origins of Wonder Woman are a heady political brew, and I’ve relished the real-life details her creator, psychologist William Moulton-Marston, poured into her. Inspired by his wife, Elizabeth Holliday Marston (also a psychologist), and their polyamorous live-in lover, Olive Byrne, Moulton-Marston has fleshed out Wonder Woman as a character of complexity and multifariousness. I feel so often that the superhero as a construct—with usually-questionable politics and sexual representation—becomes gentrified, or hetero-fied, in a bid to make him or her appropriate for mass-consumption. It’s refreshing to delve into the details of these characters and the early days of their conception. Wonder Woman’s always been one of the more complex, and Lepore’s book offers a rich insight into just how contradictory and politically loaded the superhero figure can be. Hollywood grinds down their rough edges, but it is the rough edges that appeal to me, and Lepore’s book is all about the rough edges.
Patrick White, A Life/David Marr
This is a juicy read. Marr always writes with verve, but this biography inspires a special kind of energy. Patrick White, besides having been a novelist and playwright of brilliance, was a notoriously sensational curmudgeon (it is perhaps the curmudgeon in him that I, myself relate to). More to that he was a prolific writer of letters, many of which Marr had access to. Marr was recommended to me after I’d polished off White’s autobiography in only one or two sittings and had evidently hungered for more. After all, how could his autobiography be so slim? The answer is fitting—if White didn’t want to discuss details, he wouldn’t. So, one is left with an appetite. Fortunately Marr’s book is a brick. It is stocked with the sorts of anecdotes and exchanges that make a biography a good biography. White’s ferocious wit and his withering critical broadsides hurled at anyone within earshot are uncensored and uproarious. Marr had the benefit of access to the man himself, and his reflections on these ‘encounters’—let’s call them—are priceless. I’m drawn to literature and film that breaks down and challenges the way in which creative people work, but unfortunately the point is so often lost by the writer or filmmaker who in trying to tell the story, gets in the way of the story. Marrs’ Patrick White, A Life is a rare example where, despite demonstrating incredible command over the text, enough room is left for White to dictate the story in his fussy, impatient and demanding way.
The Man in the High Castle/Philip K Dick
This took me by surprise. I’ve always enjoyed the work of Philip K. Dick, you can’t avoid him if you’re a reader of science fiction. But I avoided this book on account of its premise. The ‘what if’ trope is overused in comics, and when applied to a Nazi plotline can be insufferable. I find the Nazi theme a little like television shows and movies about serial killers, or drugs. There is only so much I can take, and a never-ending proliferation of the genre. As such, I avoided this book for a long time, because The Man in the High Castle is set in a world where the allies lost WWII to German and Japanese forces. But what I didn’t expect was a book that is quiet, nuanced, and well-considered, which discusses culture, imperialism, assimilation and racism just as affectingly as Dick’s familiar questioning of identity and spirituality.
Concrete: The Human Dilemma/Paul Chadwick
It is a crime that I left this unread for so long. I read a lot of comics, and Paul Chadwick’s Concrete is both beautiful and thoughtful. The titular character, for reasons that become increasingly unimportant in the long term, has had his brain involuntarily transplanted by aliens into a large, stone-like body. His new body is almost completely insensate but possesses an astoundingly powerful sense of sight. It is with these conditions that Concrete must find his way through a strange and unexpected life. His new body is a symbol of his own frustrated sexuality; he can touch though barely feel, while seeing everything. Concrete’s ‘adventures’—if we can call them that—are earth-bound, and follow his own desire to reinvent, and in the process rediscover, himself. I should also mention that this comic is the first comic that has made me cry, it managed to do so twice in just this one story. I won’t go into detail for fear of spoiling these two gut-punching instances, but I can say that they are cleverly considered. And a vindication of many of Concrete’s struggles throughout preceding volumes. Paul Chadwick’s been making comics like nobody else since the 80s, and Concrete is without a doubt one of the most original and stirring contributions from an American comic in the last three decades. It is superbly drawn, sincere, and at no point sure of itself. I hear another volume is on the way. I cannot wait.
The Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes
Robert Hughes is God. Well, in terms of my own writing. People often talk about their favourite writers writing like a rapier, or a razor blade. This might suit Hughes okay I suppose, but if weaponry metaphors are what we are going for then I would go with a hand grenade. A grenade is dangerous in the hands of an idiot and deadly in the hands of those who know what they’re doing. Hughes never stabs or slices, he just… lobs. His timing, and rhythm, and aim are deadly. I picked up this book because—while at its core it is a collection of tasty morsels from many of Hughes’ collected works, most of which I had already read—it includes a generous and highly realised slab of his never-completed second memoir. Guess which part of the book I jumped to first.
I left this last, for it is a tough novel. And a book I considered omitting from this list. Don’t get me wrong, it is beautiful to read, but a very long, hard look at Australia, in particular the North. This is why I need to keep going. Despite the confronting racial slurs and horrific events that take place. Herbert doesn’t glorify. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t continue but the author has a deft hand. Capricornia reels you in, it’s structure I have not been able to put a handle on, slipping and sliding. I first thought this was the story of Mark, and not long after, the story of his brother, Oscar. I now think I have been lulled into a false sense of security in thinking that this is a story of Nawnim/Norman, but it will certainly change again. Herbert builds an entire community of depth and breadth. I am only a quarter of the way in and already, the cast is heaving. I can’t help but enjoy this book.
Jonathan McBurnie is an artist and writer based in Townsville, North Queensland. He is currently the Creative Director of Perc Tucker Regional and Pinnacles Galleries, and the Exhibitions & Reviews Editor for the Journal of Asia Pacific Pop Culture.