Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #227: It Just Slipped Out... by Russell Ash

The cliche is that the British aren't interested in sex and resolutely ignore it as much as possible. That's true about as much as any cliche is, and only to that degree if you take "British" to mean "upper-class English" and focus entirely on what they say rather than what they do.

Earthier attitudes are pretty common on the scepter'd isle, particularly among earthier persons, and despite all attempts from those upper-class sorts to hide or eliminate them. And what I have today is what purports to be an encyclopedia of one particular manifestation of that earthy attitude: the old-fashioned double entendre.

(Yes, this is a whole book of "that's what she said" jokes, compiled and somewhat explained. Since I'm American, and the examples here are overwhelmingly British, it's not quite as superfluous as that might sound: double entendres are often very culturally specific, based on specific misheard words of potentially confused usages. There are a lot of jokes about pants and fannies and particulars that the vast majority of Americans wouldn't catch.)

Anyway, that's what It Just Slipped Out... claims to be. In practice, it's largely something else, but I'll get there in a minute.

(Said the actress to the bishop.)

The British love for smutty comedy has manifested itself in many ways, from the Carry On movies to Benny Hill, but perhaps the very most British example is the naughty seaside postcard. It Just Slipped Out... is very fond of those postcards; at times it feels like a half-baked price and collecting guide to those postcards fell part during the baking, and that the usable leftovers had some other double-entendre materials packed around them to form this book.

There's a lot about postcards here: that's what I'm saying. Useful bits, like the real names and the known details of the careers of the major artists. Relevant bits, like reprinting the picture side of a number of those postcards to illustrate the various naughty sayings they used. And amazingly obscure and pointless bits, like always listing the manufacturer's serial number for those postcards and the repeated focus on which towns outlawed which postcards and why.

Did you know that British towns had local groups, mostly composed of the business classes, that were empowered to approve or disallow products from being sold in their communities, up until about 1970? (If you didn't know, it probably doesn't surprise you: it sounds like the kind of thing they'd do.) And that, according to Russell Ash, our guide through the world of smutty seaside postcards (oh, and other double-entendre materials, too, when he has some space free), those postcards were a particular focus of those groups?

You will learn much more than you ever expected about what postcards were ordered destroyed in Grimsby and which were passed in Ramsgate, and have those decisions linked directly to the number of the cards in question, which would be very useful in a book aimed at collectors of those postcards.

This is not particularly a book aimed at smutty seaside postcard collectors -- and I have to imagine that, since everything else has a price guide, those postcards probably do as well -- but it sometimes feels like it was meant to be.

If you can overlook that price-guide aspect of it, Slipped Out is an amusing book to dip into, particularly if you're from a nation with slightly different double-entendres. (Explaining jokes you already get is wearying; explaining jokes based on different cultural expectations can be enlightening.)

Ash also has a number of now-funny excerpts from older books about Head Girls named Fanny or people who keep ejaculating about how gay they are -- these are not precisely double entendres, or weren't at the time, but they're close enough for modern readers.

This is, obviously, a very frivolous book, but it's a fun one, and about an aspect of language that's the source of a lot of witty wordplay and which can also trip up unwary writers and speakers. I might wish for a double entendre encyclopedia that didn't so clearly yearn to be a catalog of seaside postcards, but this one is actually quite good at what it sets out to do.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #226: The Commons by Matthew Hughes

I have to admit it: I've gotten really lazy in my reading life. I've said repeatedly that Matthew Hughes is one of my favorite writers -- and it actually is true, not just something I like to say -- and yet it took me a decade to get to this 2007 fix-up of his Guth Bandar stories.

In my defense, there are a lot of books in the world, and I have intentions of reading multiple thousands of them. (And actually own multiple hundreds, which should be a subset of the books I intend to read -- though we all know that's not how it actually works.) I might have had a copy of this before my 2011 flood: I lost a lot of books then, and don't remember what all of them were [1].

I also vaguely remember thinking at the time that the premise of this series of stories wasn't quite as appealing as Hughes's earlier Archonate work -- I don't remember exactly why I thought that, but I think it had something to do with seeing a vague description and thinking it sounded a bit woo-woo. [2]

Anyway: The Commons is a fix-up of six stories about Guth Bandar, at first a neophyte noonaut from the Institute of Historical Inquiry in the vastly distant future of Old Earth, where everything has been known, forgotten at least once, and rediscovered again. The Institute mapped the noosphere -- the landscape of the collective unconscious, which we all enter in dreams and trained explorers can navigate at will -- ages ago, and continues on in the way that academic organizations do, even though their purpose was achieved long before. So it trains explorers to understand and map the noosphere, even as it teaches that there can be nothing new to map, and any scholarly work will be on very precisely defined small topics that have certainly been covered many times before in the previous thousands of years.

Guth's career, though, is one of discovery: the noosphere, or "the Commons," as it is vulgarly known, still has secrets, and he will be the one to learn them. And, of course, if on one side you have a large and powerful academic organization that has codified all of the knowledge in its area for hundreds of generations, and on the other side you have one young and eager researcher who claims that everything they know is flawed...well, how do you think that conflict is going to go?

So Guth starts off as a promising novice in the Institute, on a major fieldwork mission with his mentor, in the first story incorporated here. But he learns something thought to be impossible -- that it's possible to break through from the Commons of one intelligent species to that of another, causing serious mental disruptions to sapients on both sides -- and loses that mentor to mental instability because of it. In the next couple of stories, Guth is still advancing in the Institute, but not as strongly as he was before, and the weight of revelations eventually stymies his progress and makes his goals impossible.

On the other side, that collective unconsciousness may have a need for Guth -- which is frightening in two ways. First, being a thing that a greater power wants to use rarely works out well. Second, the collective unconsciousness is supposed to be unconscious -- according to everything the Institute knows, it can't know or want anything.

But it does, and it has plans for Guth Bandar. They will roll out overt the course of his life, as chronicled in the stories that Hughes has mildly edited to turn into a novel here.

Hughes's Archonate stories are witty and amusing, usually with a world-weary, fatalistic air -- they're set in an Age where everything that could happen, save only the end of all things, has already happened. Guth's tales are more active and adventurous than most of those, given that they take place mostly in the Commons, a world where mythic stories retell themselves every day, and noonauts can get caught up in them. One of the slyer joys of this book is recognizing the "ancient myth-patterns" that Guth finds himself in as folktales or classic literature.

Until the last novella, Guth is mostly in the Commons, and so Hughes doesn't have much scope for his love arch dialogue -- which I did miss, a little. But that may make The Commons an easier way into Hughes's great post-historical work for many readers: it's full of incident and adventure, and not quite as mannered as some of his work it. (Again: I love the mannered stuff better, but I realize that my tastes may be uncommon.)

[1] It's hard to have personal memories of everything when you lose about 250 linear feet of books all at once.

[2] Woo-woo is a technical publishing term, used to describe books mostly bought by very nice and terribly gullible people that explain how to tune their chakras and align their pyramids and avoid the body-fluid-stealing aliens of the Bermuda Triangle and hum their way to cosmic peace. You know the kind.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #225: Penny Century by Jaime Hernandez

You might think the stories in this book would feel like a break, but they don't.

Penny Century collects work from Jaime Hernandez from the great Love and Rockets hiatus: from right after the end of the first comics series (in 1996) through 2002, just after the start of the second series. One might assume that the first series ended because the creators -- Jaime and his brother Gilbert -- wanted to shake the status quo up, and try different things.

But, for the evidence here, that wasn't true on the Jaime side of the book: what he did immediately afterward was Whoa, Nellie!, a short graphic novel about the cluster of his usual characters connected to the world of women's wrestling, and then immediately after the single-issue "Maggie and Hopey Color Fun Special," starring his two most central and popular characters. (And then the solo series Penny Century, which focused slightly more on the title character, as this book does.)

Of course, these days -- twenty years later -- we just see Penny Century as the fourth collection reprinting Jaime's Locas stories. There's no break, and we don't expect there to be one. Maggie and Hopey reunited at the end of the previous volume, which means...they're mostly still living separate lives in different places in this book.

Jaime Hernandez might be a romantic in some ways -- he does write great stories about the ways people love each other -- but not the way we usually mean that term. Maggie and Hopey lived together, and had a relationship, for a short time when they were both very young, and have been separated for a good decade at this point. In fiction, we tend to assume that means they're "meant" for each other, and that they'll be deeply in love when they meet. But in a real world, it just means they each once was a different person, and those people were close.

And let's not forget that one of the core traits of all of Jaime's major characters -- from Maggie to Doyle, from Ray D. to Speedy, from Hopey to Izzy -- is that they all find ways to doubt and sabotage themselves. (The one singular exception is Penny Century, maybe because she resolutely refuses to be Beatriz Garcia, the person she would sabotage. That also makes her the most surface-y of Jaime's characters, with quirks like repeatedly running away from her billionaire husband and wishing for superpowers substituting for more substantial flaws.)

That's made clearer than ever in two of the long stories towards the end of this book: "The Race," a Maggie dream sequence focusing on her worries and inadequacies, and "Everybody Loves Me, Baby," the flashback-filled story of Maggie's marriage and divorce to a guy from the old punk days. That self-destructive impulse may be most obvious, and most pervasive, in Maggie, but maybe that's just because she's the central character.

If you want to be really reductive, Locas is the story of people making choices -- often without even realizing it was a choice -- that turn out badly in the long run. Not genre fiction badly -- real world badly. Like missing a step here and missing a step there and finding yourself older than you thought and without any of the things you thought you wanted. That's where Jaime's characters live: in that feeling, in that world.

They're happy enough, like any of us: that's what life is like. And Jaime Hernandez is one of the best at showing that feeling, that kind of life: his people feel like friends we've known all our lives, or like ourselves. Penny Century collects an era that's not talked about a lot -- not like "The Death of Speedy" for a decade before or the "Browntown" from a decade later -- but it shows those people in the middle of those lives in all of their glory. And, as always, he draws like a dream.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/11/18

With all the ways I can get books, this year I've generally had something to write about in this weekly post almost every time.


But I spent most of last week out at The Mothership -- the massive Thomson Reuters building/campus in lovely suburban Eagan, Minnesota -- which did not offer a whole lot of opportunities to get books. And the publicity machine has basically realized I'm utterly unreliable as a venue, so that stream has pretty much disappeared as well.

It's not a big deal, since I still have a thousand or two books in my house I haven't read yet (and more that I wouldn't mind reading again), but it does mean I need to vamp, like I'm doing now, to have something for this post.

And I do apologize for that.

But I'll be back next week. I hope to have a mid-week book-shopping trip, since I need to run to Boston for the day for a company event and want to hit The Book Barn in Niantic, CT on the way back. So, with luck, I'll have more to write about then.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #224: Knife's Edge by Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock

It's a welcome surprise to see a story wrap up in two books. Oh, there are still single-volume stories, even in these fallen days. But anything that goes longer than that seems to stretch on forever, or at least to go much longer than anyone expected when it began.

Not here, though.

Knife's Edge is the second half of the historical adventure graphic novel that began in Compass South; the story began in the first book and conclusively ends here. Everything is wrapped up, all of the details mean something, and it ends the way Oscar Wilde said fiction should.

It may seem like faint praise to single out writer Hope Larson and artists Rebecca Mock for actually ending their story well the way they said it would, but it really isn't: endings are much harder than beginnings. And doing it in a thematically appropriate way -- this story is about a set of tween twins in 1859, and I won't spoil all of the doublings and dual roles in the series -- is even better.

We begin with a flashback, which may be confusing: I didn't realize it was a flashback at first. But then Cleo and Alex Dodge's father is shanghaied, and we all realize where we are. They were reunited with their father at the end of Compass South [1], and now they're learning the backstory: who their mysterious mother and father are, since Mr. Dodge is not actually their father by blood. (Though he's raised them since infancy.)

The twins are in possession of a compass and knife that, together, are the key to finding a lost pirate treasure, somewhere in the far South Pacific. And they are on a ship whose captain is willing to help search for that treasure, for a cut of it. But the pirates are not all safely dead with their treasures, and the antagonists from the first book come back with a faster ship and an eye for vengeance.

Before Knife's Edge is over, we'll have thrilling stern chases at sea, foot chases through a bustling town, sword training and fights, shipwrecks and betrayals, surprising allies and enemies, and a climactic visit to that treasure trove that will solve all of the plot complications in a moment.

We also have a very preliminary, tentative love story, though only for Cleo -- there are very few women on board ships in the mid-19th century, so Alex will have to wait until he's on the right shore.

It's all presented in mostly bright, colorful art by Mock, using chapter heads and pages with wide white margins for a classic adventure-story feel. The people are real and historically honest; Cleo pushes against what a woman's supposed to do in her time without being a superwoman, and she gets treated in complicated ways by the men around her -- because she's twelve on top of everything else.

Knife's Edge doesn't just end the story of Compass South; it ends that story well, which is more important. This series will mostly been seen in school and local libraries in the YA section, but it's worth seeking out for adults who like historical adventures -- it's not quite swashbuckling, because it's more realistic than that, but it does have excellent adventure and intrigue on the high seas.

[1] Not to give anything away, but there's a nicely matching similar scene, with somewhat different characters at the end of this book.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #223: Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Penelope Bagieu

If you can read the stories of a whole bunch of women pioneers -- such as the ones in the book I'm about to discuss -- without being at least a little bit annoyed at men in general, frankly there's something wrong with you.

And you can take "men in general" as expansively as you want, o dudes who insist "man" is always and ever a perfectly good word to mean "humanity." There's enough shittiness and negativity in the world for at least two genders.

But damn did every single advance for women come because a woman demanded it, fought for it, and faced down multiple men who insisted that not only shouldn't she do that, it was physically impossible for her to do it, so she should just go back her knitting and housekeeping.

(And if I hear a single "not all men," I'm going to smack you so hard. Nothing is all anything, you bozos.)

On the other hand, reading a bunch of stories like these is also energizing -- sure, a lot of horrible people tried to stop nearly every woman in the book, but horrible people are ubiquitous (insert reference to the political figure of your choice here), but every one of these women did the thing they're known for, despite that opposition.

So, yeah, people in general are the worst, but some individual people are the best -- that's the story of humanity from the beginning.

Penelope Bagieu has thirty individual stories to tell in Brazen -- all individual people, all women, and generally of the best. (There are some debatable candidates here, like the awesome but also pretty bloody Wu Zetian, Empress of China.)

Each story gets a title page, a three-to-seven page comic (nine-panel grid) telling the story of her life in as much detail necessary for the story Bagieu has in mind, and then a lovely two-page spread, more evocative than purely illustrative, of the essence of what make that woman great.

The comics are good: text-heavy, but snappy and quick-moving, setting the scene for each of these women in their very different places and times. But those spreads are even better: if there was a gallery show of them, I'd want to go to see them large and in person.

Bagieu casts a wide net here, from modern US and Europe (Giorgina Reid, Betty Davis -- yes, that's the correct spelling, it's not the woman you're thinking of -- Tove Jansson, Christine Jorgensen, Temple Grandin, Jesselyn Radack, Katia Krafft) to slightly more historical figures from the same places (the amazingly kick-ass Nellie Bly, Hedy Lamarr [1], Clementine Delait, Margaret Hamilton, Josephina van Gorkum, Delia Akeley) to women from further afield in time and space (Nzinga, Lozeb, Wu Zetian, Agnodice, Leymah Gbowee, Sonita Alizadeh). Unless you have really eclectic knowledge and tastes, some of them -- maybe a lot of them -- will be unfamiliar to you, which is a big plus.

Every story taught me something I didn't know, which may say more about me than the book. Every one was zippy and fun: Bagieu is focusing on women who succeeded at something. (No Joan of Arc here, for example -- the closest thing to a martyr is Las Mariposas, three rebel sisters from the Dominican Republic in the 1950s.)

It's all true, it's all good comics, Bagieu's closing spreads for each woman are wonderfully iconic, and you might learn something, too. Brazen is a total win all around.

[1] True story: recently, in a work meeting, the ice-breaker question was "What Hollywood star, past or present, would you want to have dinner with?" I was having trouble thinking of anyone until I remembered Hedy: she was my easy choice.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #222: Lumberjanes, Vol. 4: Out of Time by Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters & Brooke Allen

Any place with mysterious secrets has a backstory, by definition. And, the longer the creators take to roll out that backstory, the more convoluted and detailed it gets, with flashbacks and strange characters from the past and previously unknown giant mountains that are retroactively declared to have always been right over there.

Lumberjanes is full of secrets, at least at this point. (I'm running several years behind; maybe all the secrets have been answered and the comic is all-friendship-all-the-time now. But I doubt it.) Issues 14 through 17 of the comic, originally published in 2015 and collected the next year as Lumberjanes, Vol. 4: Out of Time, has most of the stuff I somewhat sarcastically described in that first paragraph and more.

It also has a lot of all-friendship-all-the-time, since that's the core of the series. There's even a boy who gets in on the friendship, at least some of the time, possibly because he doesn't feel quite at home with full-on boyishness. Whether all-friendship-all-the-time is available to male-identified persons is still an open question at this point.

If you're not familiar with Lumberjanes, I can direct you to my posts on the previous three books: one and two and three. They're probably not the very worst explanations of Lumberjanes online, at least.

But I do have to repeat, as I have every time I've written about Lumberjanes, that this is a series about young women (some people might call them girls) and their friendships. I am not now, and have never been a young woman, and I've been known to be grumpy about friendships.

So Lumberjanes is cute and positive and full of lovely art and smart and inclusive (of female persons) and adventurous and has interesting Deep Secrets that are being gradually revealed, but it's a book for young women and the adults those young women grew into. I like it, and I think Lumberjanes is happy enough that people like me like it, but that's not why it's here.

That is fine. That is better than fine; too much of the history of art has been made for people very much like me, and is still made for people like me today. What I'm saying is that you might want to get a female person's take on Lumberjanes. For just one example, can I point you to Johanna Draper Carlson, who is also much more up-to-date on reading all things Lumberjanes than I am?

Lumberjanes, as always, is written by Noelle Stevenson and Shannon Watters, and all of the art here is by regular series artist Brooke Allen. There are also now a couple of novels written by Mariko Tamaki for those of you allergic to the comics format but still possessed with a burning desire to experience the glory that is Lumberjanes.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #221: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 5: Like I'm the Only Squirrel in the World by Ryan North & Erica Henderson

The parade of odd would-be world-conquerors continues in this collection of Squirrel Girl's exploits -- I almost said "latest collection," but I'm still running almost two years behind, so it's not. She hasn't turned grimdark in the meantime, has she? That would be sad.

Anyway, in the five issues from late 2016 collected in (deep breath) The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 5: Like I'm the Only Squirrel in the World (exhale), our intrepid Squirrel Girl, Doreen Green, spends three issues battling a supervillain who breaks apart into smaller versions of himself when punched -- something which makes it very difficult for the heroes of the Marvel Universe to apply their usual problem-solving heuristic [1] to.

Doreen occasionally uses other solutions to problems -- oh, she can punch, too, she wouldn't last long in a Marvel comic if she couldn't -- so this becomes her problem to fix. Also, it's her comic, but that's pretty meta.

(By the way, this is volume five -- I've written about the first four here and here and here and here.)

And, yes, she does save the world: that's the point of a superhero comic. She does get some help from Ant-Man -- the ex-criminal one, not the movie one, or any of the three or four dozen others -- but more fun is Brain Drain, her friend/protege/sidekick/coincidentally also an ex-villain, who is a brain in a jar in a robot body and who is more nihilistic than anyone in a Marvel comic is generally allowed to be.

Well, that takes up three of the five issues collected here. What else? Doreen fights the Taskmaster -- whose power of "understanding how to do something perfectly by seeing it once" is always vastly overrated, since he doesn't actually get the superpowers to fly or shoot eyebeams or punch someone through the side of a building [2] -- in an issue entirely from the point of view of her cat.

And then issue #16 is the amazing 25th anniversary celebration of Squirrel Girl. And, since it's a big anniversary, it's entirely taken up with a retelling of her origins...well, actually, her entire career, more or less.

It's all fun and amusing in the Stunning Squirrel-Girl Manner, but it's all the same kind of thing as previous Squirrel Girl stories by writer Ryan North and artist Erica Henderson. [3] It's still somewhere in that nebulous middle ground between "like a normal Marvel comic, only funny and not entirely serious" and "science and girl power for parents and their pre-teens," and it does manage to avoid any crossover events that might have been cluttering up its universe at the time.

It's just more of the same: that's what I'm saying. If you liked it before, you'll probably like the reprise. But, at some point, you might want to hear a different song. [4]

[1] Is opponent attacking? Then punch.
Is opponent resting? Then declaim.
Is opponent defeated? Then monologue about justice.

[2] Squirrel Girl defeats him because she has a tail, which he can't replicate, and that would be cool if we didn't see him on previous pages fighting Hulk (superstrong), Iron Man (flies, shoots force beams), Spider-Man (shoots webs), and Ms. Marvel (stretches), every single one of whom can do at least one thing Taskmaster cannot replicate. But none of them is the star of this comic, which is Doreen's real superpower.

[3] Thought I was going to forget to mention then, didn't you?

[4] HA! I may be overly optimistic here: eighty years of superhero comics, and the neckbeards are still obsessed with their one song.