Tom Bissell's Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creations represents the best of what an essay collection can offer: incisive observations about a wide range of intriguing topics, intelligent social commentary that refrains from didacticism, and a good sense of comedic timing. Bissell's essays are characterized by impressive eclecticism. He discusses established cultural figures like Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, and Werner Herzog, as well as less conventional subjects, such as Tommy Wiseau (the auteur responsible for the cult film The Room), the Underground Literary Alliance, and Jennifer Hale, “the Queen of Video-game Voice-over.” While these topics might seem incurably disparate, Bissell's interest in the process and consequences of creation provides a framework which links them together.
Not all stand-up comedians can translate their live energy and timing into textual representation. For Patton Oswalt, however, the transition from stage to page feels effortless and strangely appropriate. In Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Oswalt treats us to an engaging romp through a motley assortment of his personal experiences, pop-culture obsessions, and comedic experiments. Oswalt introduces the book with a very appropriate confession: “Comedy and terror and autobiography and comics and literature – they’re all the same thing. To me.” And, for once, he isn’t joking.
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is extremely eclectic, which makes it difficult to relegate to a singular category. There are sections that lean towards the autobiography/memoir side of the spectrum. But there are also humor pieces and miscellaneous experiments, such as an illustrated chapter that feels like a slightly zanier, compressed version of Dylan Dog. There is also an epic poem dedicated to Ulvaak, the last character Oswalt played in Dungeons and Dragons. While the sheer variety of Zombie’s vignettes might seem overwhelming, the book is actually compulsively readable. I found myself eagerly turning the pages, wondering what Oswalt’s fevered brain would churn out next.
What makes good bedside reading? I’m talking about that particular kind of reading that consists of paying close attention for about ten minutes, dozing for ten more, then waking with a jerk as the book crashes to the floor. This is not the place for “War and Peace.”
My newest addition to the bedside table is of the second sort. Geoff Nicholson’s “The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism,” despite its daunting title, is really a series of personal essays on walking.