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What Are You Reading? Cartoonist Edward Koren Has a Far-Flung List

  • Cartoonist Ed Koren, 82, has published a new book, "In the Wild" with cartoons of Vermonters looking at city folk, and city folk looking at Vermonters. Koren, Vermont’s Cartoonist Laureate from 2014-17 stands in his Brookfield, Vt., studio Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Pencils, pens and ink sit ready in the studio of cartoonist Ed Koren in Brookfield, Vt., Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Cartoonist Ed Koren stands in his studio at home in Brookfield, Vt., Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2018

Two weeks shy of his 83rd birthday, New Yorker cartoonist Edward Koren doubts that he can turn over a new leaf in his reading habits now.

“I was in a book group in Montpelier for a while,” Koren said last week, during a telephone interview from his home in Brookfield, Vt. “We would read 19th-century English fiction, which I love — Eliot, Thackeray, Austen, James — but I had to give it up. I work a lot. I’m inefficient in my reading. There’s a pile of books here and a pile of books there, piles all over the house. I should be much more focused.

“I don’t have a curriculum, following the syllabus I set out for myself.”

And so Koren delves, during those little windows of time among his drawing projects, his appearances around Vermont and New Hampshire for his new book of cartoons and his duties with the Brookfield Volunteer Fire Department.

“I’ve been going back to Moby-Dick,” Koren said. “It’s funny. Melville has a fierce wit about him.”

Koren said that he’s also approaching the finish line of In My Own Country, physician-novelist-New Yorker-contributor Abraham Verghese’s memoir about treating rural patients early in his career in eastern Tennessee.

“I’m interested in medicine in an amateurish way,” Koren said. “I enjoy the work of Atul Gawande (yet another doctor and New Yorker contributor), too. I appreciate the humanity of the writers who relish their service.”

On the contemporary fiction side of the literary equation, Koren appreciates Martin Walker’s series of mysteries featuring small-town French police chief Bruno Courrèges.

“He has such a generous affection for the people he writes about,” Koren said. “It reminds me about what makes Vermont great, the sense of community. It’s remarkably how life is in small-town Vermont. He’s a great read.”

So, in Koren’s eyes, is Vermont-based author Bill McKibben, and for more than his nonfiction writing about threats to the environment. McKibben struck a chord with Koren recently with 2017’s Radio Free Vermont, a novel in which an elderly radio pirate triggers a movement against big-box development and other homogenizing forces.

“It’s a satirical and generous take on our state,” Koren said. “He has a deep understanding on what is funny and poignant about our state.”

A similar sensibility runs through Koren’s cartoons in The New Yorker. Seen mostly through the eyes of hairy characters, humans and hybrids alike, they gently satirize modern life both in Koren’s adopted Green Mountain State and in trendy neighborhoods in his native New York City.

Not that it’s all fun and games: Earlier this year, the Bennington Museum in southwest Vermont exhibited a series of cartoons in which Koren depicts the survivors of some unnamed apocalypse, making do amid the ruins of civilization. The survivors somewhat resemble the big, fuzzy creatures who often appear in The New Yorker, but are oddly shaped and don’t smile.

“I’d been reading (New Yorker staff writer) Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction and Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” Koren said. “The imagery started to emerge from that, and I seized it and pushed it. It was a visual essay of despair with a touch of hope.”

When the despair, or at least irritation, that comes from reading The Washington Post, Politico, The New York Times, The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books — “the usual liberal, fake news” — gets to be a bit much, Koren delves back into 19th-century fiction.

“I read Dickens for the satirical aspect of his work, and the sociology, how he depicts Victorian society, its cruelty and its mean-spiritedness.”

Depending on his mood, Koren will tackle anything from a memoir — recent favorites include Cullen Murphy’s Cartoon County, about Murphy’s cartoonist/illustrator father, and James Salter’s fictionalized Burning the Days — to a graphic novel by Vermonter Alison Bechdel, whose work he describes as “eloquent, both visually and verbally.”

Eventually, organically, mysteriously and, for the most part, implicitly, they all work their way onto Edward Koren’s drawing board.

“Reading is undervalued, a lot, altogether,” Koren said. “It seems to me a dwindling form of inspiration and entertainment in our culture. I know that I still need it for inspiration. … What I do is so much an amalgamation of verbal and visual expression. It’s a distillation of everything to one or two seconds, a snapshot.

“For me, it’s the most rewarding part of what I do: to look at a finished product and say, ‘Where did that come from?’ ”

Edward Koren reads from and signs copies of Koren. In the Wild at the Norwich Bookstore tonight at 7; the bookstore reported on Thursday that all seats are filled for the event, but signed copies will be available for sale. Koren also is scheduled to read at 6 p.m. on Dec. 11 at Woodstock’s Norman Williams Public Library, a reading that was postponed by this week’s snowstorm.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304. He welcomes recommendations of devoted readers to interview.