by May 10, 2013 at 2:00 pm 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

"Tenth of December"

Tenth of December by George Sounders. (Courtesy Ramdom House)

To be honest, the stories in George Saunders’ Tenth of December are probably a lot more sci-fi than they let on at first glance. Several of them seem to take place in near-distant futures where technology runs rampant, sapping our humanity, our free will and our ability to express genuine emotions.

In “Escape from Spiderhead,” a penal colony is home to bizarre scientific experiments in which, with the flip of a dial, a prisoner can spout poetry, feel intense sexual desire and even want to inflict harm on others.

In one of Saunders’ other haunting pieces, “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” we follow along in the diary of a middle-aged family man who engages in psychological class warfare with his more well-off neighbors.

But what’s more terrifying than the economic disparity the narrator feels: the world he lives in, one in which immigrants from third-world countries elect to become veritable lawn ornaments in an effort to earn and send money back to their families (an idea that’s echoed in another story, “Puppy,” where a child is literally chained outside to a tree).

Sounds farfetched? It is, but the strangeness is tempered by the normalcy with which these otherworldly situations are treated; just another facet of consumerist American society. In fact, it’s the class element to this collection (whose narrators who are all underdogs of a sort) that comes to mean more than the sci-fi aspects of Tenth of December.

And when both themes come together, as they do in “My Chivalric Fiasco” (where an actor at a Renaissance fair takes a drug that makes him think and act like the heroic knight he only pretends to be), the result is proof of how Saunders can make the fanciful believable and the outlandish all too human.

Come to Tenth of December for the flights of fancy and strange twists of fate. Stay for the frightening commentary on how we live and feel in an increasingly technological, fractured world.

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by February 19, 2013 at 2:00 pm 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

"Building Stories"

Building Stories by Chris Ware.

Building Stories, the new graphic work by artist Chris Ware, is part puzzle, part graphic novel, part history of print, part domestic drama, part… well, pretty much part everything. Above all, it’s an important work that almost defies categorization — and a reading experience that demands your attention.

Contained in a giant box are more than a dozen fragments and pieces that make up a veritable history of the printed word: newspapers, booklets, posters, pamphlets, comic strips and even a game board. And they all revolve around the story of a nondescript, three-story apartment building outside Chicago and the lives of its residents.

Piece by piece, we come to know three of the building’s tenants. There’s the old landlady who spends her time haunted by the ghosts of her past. There’s the young couple on the middle floor whose daily lives are a mess of passive aggression.

There’s Branford, a bee from a nearby hive whose life serves as an apt commentary on his human counterparts. There’s the building itself, which conjures memories and insights in an archaic voice.

But at the heart of it all is the unnamed young woman on the third floor, an aspiring artist and part-time florist who spends her down time berating herself for her looks (including a missing leg) and feeling the kind of angst that all the building’s residents endure.

Throughout the various pieces of Building Stories, we follow this young woman as she recounts her father’s death from cancer, her past relationships with men, the death of her cat, and her eventual move out to the suburbs (right near a popular Frank Lloyd Wright building) with her husband and young daughter.

There’s no clear way to read this hybrid work; a recommendation is just opening the lid of the box and working your way down from the first small strip through the Little Golden Book-esque piece down to the newspaper at the bottom.

Reading Building Stories is as much a tactile experience as it is an emotional one. But despite the handsome illustrations, the resonant symmetry of the pieces, the sometimes-confusing transition between panels and spaces, this is above all an unforgettable work about the drama of everyday life, a testament to the spaces we live in — and the people whose lives we share those spaces with.

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