Monday, April 15, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/13/19

One book this week -- a book of illustrated stories coming in October from Norton.

It's called The Envious Siblings and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes, it's by Landis Blair, and it's more than a little influenced by Edward Gorey.

(Tangent: why is that a big deal? Well, our artistic culture seems to be just fine with the thousandth genre entry -- write a book about a stableboy who turns out to be the lost prince and see if every review uses the same comparison -- but comes down hard on the second. To my mind, that's backward: the second creator is still trailblazing, turning one person's specific style into something closer to a genre, and making room for more work in that genre. I complained about this a lot when Elizabeth Willey's novels were coming out, since she was the only person who tried to do Amberesque novels other than Roger Zelazny. And I expect Landis Blair will be my new example for the same argument.)

So Envious Siblings has eight stories, all told in rhyming verse underneath full-page illustrations in precise pen-and-ink with more than a little crosshatching, all about nasty and/or tormented young people in scenes that tend to look more Victorian than modern.

I haven't done more than scan it, so I can't say how well Blair's writing handles this style. His art looks nice, carefully posed in that way that implies action but looks static. And I'm always in favor of more grisly dark humor. So I want to like this, and I'm happy to see it has quotes from Emil Ferris and Eddie Campbell. If you've been a bit out of sorts since Gorey died, you'll want to at least glance at Envious Siblings when it hits stores this fall.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Perdy, Vol. 1 by Kickily

Genres are quirky things -- especially the small ones. I'm pretty sure "French Western comics" is a pretty small genre, but it's hard to say, as a purely Anglophone reader an ocean away.

I have seen a stream of things in that genre, though -- first the Blueberry comics by Charlier and Moebius, which I read in the '90s but were mostly older than that. then some other random things, and most recently Perdy, Vol. 1 by an entity credited as Kickily. [1] And they all have seemed to fall into a basically coherent genre. It's a comics version of Sergio Leone movies more than anything -- not just influenced by the American cinematic Western, but specifically influenced by the late, decadent, European burst of "the American cinematic Western." They definitely have nothing to do with the thin American genre of Western comics, which were another one of those vaguely superhero-esque brand extensions from the Big Two and are now quite thoroughly dead.

Then again, French adventure comics tend to have a distinctive tone or style to begin with: more fatalistic than their American equivalents, depicting worlds in which horrible, irrevocable things happen...and are not afterward wished or retconned out of existence. French comics, from what I've seen, play fair with their audiences: they say clearly "this is real, this story matters, and what happens in it will have consequences."

I appreciate that, as a reader who likes stories and not just narrative shards. And that's one of the reasons why I wanted to read Perdy.

(Among the others: it's unabashedly about sex and violence but centered on a woman no longer young, never terribly attractive, built very sturdily, and possessed of the bullheaded will and drive usually reserved for men in popular fiction. Perdy herself is a great obnoxious character, and that came through even before I read the book.)

Perdy is a woman of middle years -- call her somewhere in her forties, since she has a grown daughter. She's been in prison for fifteen years as the story opens, and is just getting released for her unspecified but clearly violent crimes. She has nothing but the rags of her prison garb: not even shoes. But we readers can see immediately that this will not be much impediment to her: Perdy is the kind of person you either quickly get out of the way of or get bowled over by.

There's something cartoony about Perdy, but it's the fun, narrative-enhancing kind of cartoony. A story always moves forward with someone like Perdy in it, and so this one does: she goes to retrieve her gear from the place she hid it, and then sets out to get back to the work of her life: robbing banks.

(Well, and causing trouble, but that's more of a hobby -- the kind of thing she can and does do nearly every moment of every day. She's also quite fond of very vigorous sex, entirely on her own terms, which is also nice to see in a woman like Perdy who is almost entirely not constructed for the male gaze.)

Along the way, she comes back in contact with someone from her old life, though I won't spoil that surprise. There's another female character here who is nearly as overwhelming as Perdy, in her own more conventionally feminine way, though I have to admit the men mostly do not acquit themselves well in the company of either woman. It's understandable: they're clearly overmatched, and know it.

As the Vol. 1 might imply, this is not a complete story. The second book is promised for this fall, though, and what we have here has most of the shape of a story -- there's no ending, but it's a satisfying story that tells us a lot about these people and their world and runs us through a series of entertaining and amusing scenes. I'm cautiously optimistic that we won't be looking for the ending in a Vol. 12 some years down the road...but that's always the danger.

For now, though, this is a fine beginning and a great central character. Perdy kicks ass in several ways, and it's fun to watch her doing it.

[1] A desultory Internet search leads me to believe that Kickily is a male human being. I can't prove this, so take it as you will. Every entity on the Internet can be assumed to be a dog unless you have compelling evidence otherwise.

Friday, April 05, 2019

Quote of the Week: Yes, I Know

"The most characteristic aspect of most any blog is a first few enthusiastic posts, followed by a large gap and a post explaining why the person hasn't posted, and a public intention to post again -- usually followed by silence."
 - Kevin Young, Bunk, p.114

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

100 Bullshit Jobs...And How to Get Them by Stanley Bing

I may have found the most 2006 book ever. (And I hope someone won't be saying the identical thing about 2019 a decade from now, though I wouldn't bet against it.)

2006, of course, was the height of the last big American boom, driven by the last big delusional Republican American president -- and, at the time, we thought those both were heights that would never be bettered. (Insert hollow laugh here.)

And the mostly humorous business writer "Stanley Bing" -- he has some other name, which I could probably find without too much trouble, under which he has lived a real career as an actual mid-level corporate manager -- summed up all of the highlights of that era in his book 100 Bullshit Jobs...And How to Get Them.

This is indeed a list of 100 jobs, alphabetically, each with a pseudo-scientific and mostly humorous mathematical formula to determine just how bullshit each of them is. Up front is an introduction explaining the formula and the project, but the bulk of the book is running through those hundred jobs and describing what they do in breezy tones, starting (obviously) with pay and running through the skills required, duties, famous folks with that job, how the reader can get into it, and so on.

Bullshit isn't the same as easy, of course. A job can have long, grueling hours and still be entirely bullshit. But there's an essential lack of honesty and centeredness that characterizes the true bullshit job, and many people aspire to that state of not-caring and want to find a way to skate by everything serious and weighty.

Bing begins with Advertising Executive and runs through Yoga Franchiser before hitting #100 with, in the best business-book fashion, You. Because every business book is always about You: how you can win friends and influence people, or move the cheese, or lean in, or whatever piece of bullshit advice that particular writer thinks will sound plausible to you so he can make a fortune.

Bing knows this, and lays on the smarm at the end, with not only the final job being whatever the hell it is You do, but adding a short conclusion entirely on "Transforming your job into a bullshit job," which is of course what we all clearly aspired to in 2006.

Obviously, 100 Bullshit Jobs is a massive exercise in bullshit itself -- that's the point. Any of the jobs listed here can be bullshit, and so can a whole lot of other jobs. (Our current President, for example, is showing that you can make any job a bullshit job -- I hope Bing is proud.) Any job can also not be bullshit: like a crime, making a job bullshit requires motive, means and opportunity -- you have to have the chance to make that job bullshit, and you have to want to do it.

If you do have that desire, know that Bing's book is out there as a roadmap. The world is slightly less friendly to bullshit jobs after the last financial crash than it was in 2006 -- I have a vague, probably-bullshit-theory itself that this has been the case for every crash, and that bullshit builds up afterwards in the fat periods -- but there's still plenty of it out there, and 2006 is close enough to 2019 that the models here still mostly work.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

This book was a bestseller and reviewed/talked about a lot -- so there's a very good chance you're not hearing about it for the first time from me. In fact, this paperback edition is already a year old itself.

More importantly, Stephens-Davidowitz's central point -- that there are now large datasets, mostly around Internet usage, which can be used by social scientists and other researchers to get closer to the truth about what people really think and feel about taboo or contentious subjects -- might be news in a lot of circles, but not to anyone who's been paying attention for the last decade or so.

(Admittedly, a lot of people don't pay attention. People are the worst, as we can also learn from this book.)

So. We have the usual punchy, expansive title: Everybody Lies. And the equally usual descriptive subtitle that claims even more territory: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are. So far, so much like a million other non-fiction bestsellers and would-be bestsellers since bookselling became a regular racket. We expect a quick, punchy read that makes big claims in a lot of areas, backs up at least some of them at least some of the time, and gives us a few facts which we can use to sound smart at a cocktail party or on the Internet.

Everybody Lies is a bit better than that, actually, but it follows that model pretty closely. Again, if you're in any data-driven field, it won't particularly shocking. (In Chapter 6, about two-thirds of the way through the book, Stephens-Davidowitz spends several pages explaining what A/B tests are -- I, and I hope every other marketing person currently in existence, have been doing A/B tests for probably a decade now. Not as often or as rigorously as I might like, true, but it's not a new concept for that many people, I hope.)

Stephens-Davidowitz (can I call him SSD from here, for short?) starts off with sex, because he is not at all stupid. He doesn't really note that one of the great precursors of this book are the occasional posts by the data scientists of (of all places) PornHub, delving into questions like whether porn viewing dips on Super Bowl Sunday and what the most popular kinds of entertainment are in different nations. But who ever wants to emphasize that other people have been doing the same thing, in more depth and sometimes better?

SSD was a data scientist for Google, and it seems that the best data he has to work with is still mostly from Google, so that informs what he's been looking at and researching. (Admittedly, I expect Google would be the best Internet data anyone could have to work with in most cases, given their size and ubiquity.) I do wonder what a similar book by a Facebook expert would say -- SSD is mostly looking at individual behavior and attitudes, as seen by searches, and a Facebook-centric (or even just social-media-focused) project would be much more about social maps, how ideas spread, which ideas spread, and the contagiousness of various things. [1]

Everybody Lies starts out with sex and racism -- it is a book by an American, for Americans, after all -- and then moves on to less immediately juicy topics and then to general issues raised by the existence of these tools and research techniques, as it tries to cover everything a general reader might want to know about Big Data and its uses.

I don't want to be flippant, because SSD has a fairly rigorous academic background, and he's clearly brought that to his data-science work and the original research that underpins a lot of this book. A lot of what he's doing here is simplifying complex data-analysis concepts to explain them to a mass audience -- but that's what a mass audience needs. Everybody Lies does a good job of summarizing both what we can know about (mostly American) mass culture and attitudes from Internet data, and at examining some particular examples of that data.

I personally would like a book with even more charts and detail, but that's me. This is probably more chart-heavy than the average reader wants to begin with.

[1] That book might exist -- let me know if anyone out there has read or seen it.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Not Reviewing the Mail

I don't know if you are as annoyed with my stream of "I said I'd do this thing, so here I am to say I have nothing to say" posts as I am, but I'm trying to stop them.

So I'm explicitly saying what might have been implicit: I'm only going to do the things I semi-jokingly refer to as "obligatory" posts when I actually have something to say about the thing the post is supposedly about.

e.g.: when I don't have any new books to write about any given week, I will not have a Reviewing the Mail post.

Inference beyond that point is left to the reader.

Have a nice day.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson

Some novels are about story, a narrative that moves forward and goes from Point A to Point B. Those kind of books can range from the most relentless chase thrillers to discursive books like Dickens's and across several dozen other variations. Frankly, that's what most people would think of as "a novel" to begin with.

Steve Erickson doesn't play that game.

Shadowbahn is not his least narrative novel -- I think that's still Amnesiascope -- but it's not a story of things that happen in a certain order. It's a collection of things that did happen, or are happening, or that no one can stop happening, or that we wish happened, or dream that they didn't happen. It's the kind of book that reviewers call a meditation or a fantasia or other fanciful terms: a book loosely about things rather than telling the story of them.

In this case, it's rock 'n roll, Elvis, the Beatles, American music in general, the late twentieth century, and, looming over all of that like some Tolkienian Shadow, 9/11. Erickson will not tell us clearly what the one has to do with the other: he's not a writer to draw straight, crisp lines.

So let me sketch some of the things that happen, or appear, in Shadowbahn. They will be in no particular order.

  • Off Highway 44 in the South Dakota badlands, in what seems to be 2021, two matching blocky skyscrapers appear mysteriously. Those two matching blocky skyscrapers, the ones violently destroyed twenty years before.
  • Parker and Zima, twentysomething white brother and teen black sister, are driving cross-country, from one side of their family to another, when this happens. Their car is soon the only place in the country where music still plays.
    • That music seems to come from Zima herself, and may be entirely from the massive number of playlists compiled by their obsessive father.
      • That father, who never appears on-stage in Shadowbahn, is pretty obviously a 
      • version or self-insert for Erickson.
      • He, and Parker/Zima, have appeared in Erickson's novels before, notably in These Dreams of You.
  • Jesse Garon Presley wakes up near the top of one of those towers, somewhere in his middle years -- not young, but not as old as a man born in 1935 should be. He is alone there.
    • His twin brother died at birth. We are to presume something has shifted the universe so that we got this Presley rather than another, and probably all of the other changes we see. 
    • Presley had a minor career as a male model and hanger-on in Warhol's Factory, then increasingly became obsessed by his dead/non-existent twin, symbolized by one 45 by that twin.
    • This Presley cannot sing at all.
    • He knows -- and many people around him know -- that he was supposed to die, that the world they live in is the wrong one, and that it is Presley's fault.
    • Rock 'n roll basically died out by the early '60s. The Beatles were never famous. We may presume that American popular music either was locked into sever-duller iterations of The Great American Songbook [1] or that music stopped being a serious cultural influence at all, as we choose. The latter seems more likely, given the silence in the Parker/Zima sections. 
The narrative bounces from Parker/Zima to Presley and back, looping around that car trip, Presley in the tower, and Presley in the '60s and '70s. Again, Erickson is not telling a story here. Maybe he's constructing a mosaic, or painting a picture, of an America without something central and foundational -- showing us a society shattered at its center, broken and jagged with pain in the broken places. That's Shadowbahn.

As always, Erickson writes compellingly. He's a masterful prose stylist, with sentences that sing and characters that appear full-formed immediately. This book is structured into single-page pseudo-chapters (or vignettes), each one with a "title" that is often just the first words of the first sentence, rolling up into several large sections that mostly focus on either Parker/Zima or Presley.

Most readers don't want a novel like Shadowbahn. That's fine. But one sign I have that we don't live in a broken, shattered world -- maybe one of the few, these days -- is that Erickson is out there, writing novels like this.

[1] Amusingly, this could connect to another one of my obsessions: the Fallout video game series. Those are set in a world without rock 'n roll, a world devastated by a massive nuclear war in the late 21st century, a world crueler and nastier than our own. Shadowbahn, if you squint, could almost be a prequel to those games.