Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cometbus #51: The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah

I’ve always been a huge fan of Cometbus and I must admit that one of my prouder moments was realizing that my verbiage from an Aaron Cometbus interview I did for Snipehunt magazine in the 90s ended up gracing the back cover of Despite Everything, the Cometbus Omnibus. That said, the last several issues of the zine haven’t captivated me as much as the output from the 90s and early 00s. In more recent issues, Aaron has been expanding his stylistic palette, playing more with both the novelette and various cultural study and journalistic forms. Enjoyable, but not as strong as the diaristic/personal rumination bent he developed throughout the 90s.

That said, I can’t rave enough about Cometbus #51 entitled The Loneliness of the Electric Menorah. #51 is a full-on, cultural history of the booksellers of Telegraph Ave. Moe’s, Cody’s, Shakespeare and Co. take center stage, as do many of the businesses that spring up in their wake such as Rasputin's, Amoeba, Black Oak, Shambala and others. The issue, chock full of Berkeley history and lore from the late 50s to the present, is more than a straight, journalistic investigation. Aaron leaves himself on the page in a big way. This issue is his own ode to books, bookstores, and his beloved Berkeley. A landscape filled not with businessmen, but with larger than life characters and impossible dreamers, petty feuds and gestures of goodwill. The bookstores, their owners and their employees are equal parts intimidating, irritating, and beautiful. Cometbus #51 tries to uncover what drives a person, a place, and an era. At the end of the day, it’s full of reverence, nostalgia, hope, and sadness.

In one review I read of the issue, I saw someone complain that not being from Berkeley and not being familiar with the stores, he just didn’t care about the characters that much. I’ve only been to those stores a handful of times in my life and know nothing about their owners, but I don’t think that matters. I think the writing hits on more universal themes about community—how they’re formed, how they’re maintained, and how they can unravel. Cometbus #51 should connect with anyone who has been part of a scene or who has been trying desperately to break into a scene or is simply trying to make sense of the city around them.

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