Friday, March 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #75: The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan

I always say that I don't like or read horror stories, which means I'm pretty much required to make the case that this is not a horror story.

Well, I can't do that: The Night Country is a horror story. It's a literary story too, or maybe more so, but it's definitely horror. And maybe the fact that Stewart O'Nan uses horrific elements so well is equally responsible for why I think he's one of our very best writers and why I still don't get to his books except every few years.

(Possible objections: I seem to focus on the most horrific of his books, which is probably true. But I prefer to think that I like genre elements in my literary fiction, and horror is the genre element O'Nan works with.)

It's about fifteen years ago -- The Night Country was published in 2003. It's Halloween, in the small town of Avon, Connecticut. One year ago, five teens were in a horrific crash on Halloween night, which has haunted the town, and especially the policeman, Brooks, who was chasing them at the time.

One of the teens tells us the story. His name is Marco. He died in the crash. Also dead is Toe (real name Chris, the driver) and Danielle, the three of them called over and over again all around Avon as people remember them. But they can't touch the real world; can't affect anything.

Tim was Danielle's boyfriend. He survived the crash unscathed -- physically. And his friend Kyle survived with massive head trauma, turning him into a simpler teen, a quieter teen, a more childlike teen. (The ghost of who Kyle used to be also lurks around The Night Country, but he's not with Marco, Toe, and Danielle. They're as mystified by him as the reader.)

The Night Country takes place over just over twenty-four hours, from just before midnight on Mischief Night (or Goosey Night, as we call it in my neck of the woods) to the anniversary of the crash. The living characters are Brooks and Tim and Kyle, Kyle's parents and two dim admirers of Toe. The dead characters are just as important -- and, again, our narrator is one of them.

This is a novel of ghosts and hauntings - literal and figurative. It's a horror novel and a literary novel. It's a tragedy: one in which the tragic end has already happened, and we're just waiting for the bodies to fall. It's brilliant and compelling and beautifully written and pitch-black. It has amazing sentences and awesome passages -- the entire first chapter is a tour de force. If horror was like this more often, I'd read a lot more of it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #74: The Best American Comics, 2015 and 2016, edited by Jonathan Lethem and Roz Chast

A couple of weeks ago (if I'm looking at the written-but-unpublished buffer correctly) I wrote about the Jeff Smith-edited Best American Comics 2013, and talked about "the usual suspects" and how that annual book could be counted on to give a general view of the comics field any year, and recommended any annual volume to any reader.

This is because I'd forgotten how radically they can vary.

Now, the series editor did also change between 2013 and 2015 -- Bill Kartalopolous took over from Jessica Abel and Matt Madden with the 2014 Scott McCloud-edited book -- but I think the guest editor is the biggest piece of the puzzle. A guest editor who comes out of a certain wing of comics will tend to know and enjoy that world -- and learn to love other things during the editing, sure, but essential tastes don't change that much that quickly. When a guest editor is chosen who isn't from any specific wing of comics, because he's from an only loosely connected field, then it's anyone's guess where he'll come down.

It's not true that comics always comes down to a battle between Story and Art. At their best, comics use both brilliantly, and meld the two inescapable together into one visual storytelling thing. But, if it were true, Jonathan Lethem would be firmly on the Art side, and I would just as firmly on the Story side. (Roz Chast, from a wing of comics that doesn't show up much in this context -- the dwindling world of magazine single panels -- seems to be firmly on the cartooning side, which is both and neither.)

But I should introduce the books before I go any further. This series has been coming out for a little more than ten years now, with three different series editors and a new guest editor each year. The series editor tries to see "everything" eligible -- comics by cartoonists and teams either currently resident in North America or from here -- and passes on about a hundred stories/books/projects to the guest editor, who culls a final list from that and his/her own reading. And then the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, has to try to get the rights to reprint those, which doesn't always happen. (The Lethem volume seems to have lost one story to lawyers in general -- too close to someone else's IP -- and another story that the creator wouldn't allow to be reprinted. That's how it happens with Best of the Year books, even if the dirty laundry only rarely makes it out where the audience can see.) Houghton Mifflin has been doing "Best American" books for a century, starting with Best American Short Stories and proliferating more and more over the last three decades.

Best American Comics 2015 was edited by novelist and occasional comics writer (Omega the Unknown) Jonathan Lethem, who I met briefly at a SFWA reception a million years ago, back when he was a SF writer and I was a SF editor. Roz Chast edited Best American Comics 2016; she's been a New Yorker mainstay for several decades and has committed graphic memoir with Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

As I think back on it, Best American Comics does occasionally dive into the aggressively artsy -- there was a lot of Fort Thunder-ish stuff in the early volumes -- but it's usually more middle-of-the-road. But Lethem in particular doesn't like the middle of any road: his book includes more weirder, further out, and actually difficult-to-read comics. (His cover is by Raymond Pettibon, a gallery painter who incorporates comics elements but is not a comics creator by the definition of anyone not named Jonathan Lethem. Pettibon also contributes a few "comics" -- actually paintings, and, even worse, all dated before the year supposedly memorialized here -- which I found impossible to actually read. I mean the words were physically that small/twisted/badly laid out that I couldn't get my aging eyes to make them coherent.) Lethem has some other bold choices, but Pettibon is the only one I'd actually object to -- some stories aren't too my taste, or not what I think that creator can do at his/her best, but nothing else felt totally out of place like Pettibon.

Chast's volume is more typical -- I don't want to say "middle of the road," since that sounds bland or reductive, but she's driving on the road all the time, at least. Lethem goes from the road to careening off a cliff semi-randomly, which is interesting and exciting but means he throws in a number of things that this particular reader was not impressed with.

Anyway, this is a great series, but -- which I didn't think about, or articulate, with the 2013 book -- the guest editor really matters. With a decade of them behind us, a reader can find the editor most sympatico to her worldview -- maybe Lynda Barry, maybe Neil Gaiman, maybe Scott McCloud -- and start with that book. Good stories don't date, so you don't have to grab the most recent book.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #73: Shade the Changing Girl, Vol 1: Earth Girl Made Easy by Cecil Castellucci and Marley Zarcone

Big Comics is all about the reboot. It worked for the Crisis and the Secret Wars. It worked for all of those Brits taking over minor DC characters in the late '80s and early '90s. It worked when Superman was killed and Batman's back was broken. It worked when everyone suddenly had pouches for about five years in the '90s. It worked for everyone's Year One and Year Zero and Year One Million and Year Minus Fifty-Seven. It worked for big crossovers. It worked every time some team wanted to revive a dormant character -- change everything and you were good for at least twenty issues or so.

Well, it worked up until the point it stopped working, which is the last couple of years. But if you trace that reboot impulse back to Barry Allen in 1956, it worked for sixty years, which is a damn long time.

And maybe it can keep working in the right circumstances. Maybe you can't reboot everything all the time, but you can reboot forgotten things at the right time. You know, like they used to do?

Shade the Changing Girl is a reboot, in the tradition of the Karen Berger British Writer Trans-Atlantic Express of yore that built Vertigo around itself. This time it's called Young Animal, since our celebrity-obsessed society needs a minor rock-star to lend glamor to it (Gerard Way, who I'm slandering here, since he actually is a writer of good comics). but you can't blame the creators for that. This Shade is a descendant of the Peter Milligan/Chris Bachalo Shade the Changing Man Vertigo series, more so than the original character as created by Steve Ditko.

But where Milligan's Shade was a Brit's long examination of America and what was the hell its deal, new writer Cecil Castellucci's concerns are more personal and 21st century: who are we, who are out friends, what kind of people are we, do we enjoy what we do. I imagine there are already too many essays on the Internet comparing the Milligan/Bachalo "masculine" concerns with the Castellucci/Zarcone "feminine" ones, so I'll just point to that difference, and say I personally think it's more of an outer-world/inner-world difference.

Loma is young and fabulous on the world Meta, a recent college dropout whose vague dreams are too big for her actual life and circumstances. She's a bit obsessed with Rac Shade, the poet and space traveler and possessor of the M-Vest and protagonist of the Milligan/Bachalo series, and has struck up a fuck-buddy relationship with a young man, Lepuck, who has access to the museum where that vest is housed. (It was part of a government program to harness "the Madness," a purposely ill-defined zone of space/time/reality between Meta and Earth, and presumably there are other similar items elsewhere.) And so Loma grabs that vest, puts it on, and travels through the Madness to Earth to escape her life and be more like Rac.

"Shade" is more a title than a name, so she calls herself Loma Shade, or just Shade, on the other end.

Both Lepuck and Loma are non-humanoid sapients, on a world of mostly humanoform people -- we later learn because of immigration and refugees and similar background issues. This will probably become important at some point, if Shade the Changing Girl runs long enough.

As Rac did, Loma arrives on Earth in someone else's body -- that's how the Madness works. (Rac eventually inhabited four people, I think, during the Milligan/Bachalo series.) Her host is the brain-dead mean-girl teenager Megan Boyer. I say "mean girl," but Megan was far beyond that: she was a vicious force of nature, dominating her supposed friends on the swim team and her boyfriend. Castellucci doesn't underline the parallel, but Megan used people not all that differently than Loma used Lepuck -- it's just that Megan did it consistently and with a real end in mind, unlike flighty Loma.

This first volume, Earth Girl Made Easy, collects the first six issues -- mostly set-up. Loma settles into Megan's life, tries to figure out how to live on 2016 Earth when her main cultural reference points are Rac's poems and a not-I-Love-Lucy '50s TV show she loves, and learns that she can't just get back through the Madness for Whatever Reason. Meanwhile, back on Meta, Lepuck pines for Loma, who he thinks is his girlfriend. And shadowy forces gather, remnants of the government program Rac was part of, interested in the M-Vest and in grabbing back power. They will be our villains, eventually.

But for this first volume, Loma/Megan is enough of her own villain: she has to make friends in a school that old-Megan cruelly dominated, and overcome what's left of Megan in that shared mind. Again, this is mostly set-up: these six issues introduce the case on Earth and Meta and get them to what I expect will be the status quo for another dozen or two issues.

On the art side, I have to call out colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick as the real star: this Shade is bright and brilliant and coruscating, as a book about Madness must be. Penciller Marley Zarcone (with inkers Ande Parks and Ryan Kelly) do a solid job, which looks to me like a slightly flatter take on '90s Vertigo style to give those colors space to blossom.

This Shade is worth checking out, if you remember the '90s series with fondness, if you want to see if DC can do something Vertigo-ish in this new century, and if you're interested in a smart take on mean girls and teenage life.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #72: Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

Lands of epic fantasy have one big continent, with an irregular coast. There may be islands off the coast here and there, but there's only one continent, only one world. There's one kind of people on one side of the continent and another kind over on the other side. Those groups don't get along all the time, of course -- and, if we're telling an epic fantasy story, it will be during a time when they're spectacularly not getting along. Maybe there's a big wall slicing across the middle of that continent, Robert-Frostly trying to make good neighbors out of warring parties. It won't work, of course. We want our epic fantasy story, and that requires blood and death and devastation, pain and sorrow and misery, and heroic figures that feel all of that pain and yet find ways to transcend and transform their world, in the end.

But we're not at the end. We're at the beginning, with the one continent and the big wall and the two nations of very different people, about to go to war and kill untold numbers of both of them. And an epic fantasy war, like an epic fantasy story, can be expected to go on for a long time.

This particular example is Monstress, a stylish comic written by lawyer/novelist Marjorie Liu and drawn by manga-ka Sana Takeda. The first collection is called Awakening: it has the first six issues. The war hasn't even started yet by the time we hit the last page in this book, which is also typical for epic fantasy. I've seen this world described as "Asian-inspired," and it may be, but it looks like pretty standard to me: humans on one side, "elves" on the other. The "elves" are here called Arcanic, and are explicitly half-breeds of humans and the immortal used-to-be-godly Ancients, but they're even divided into Seelie and Unseelie Courts -- pardon me, Dusk and Dawn -- to make the parallel more obvious.

There are also Lovecraftian Old Gods, who lurk in spaces between worlds and have bodies that don't fit the humanoform plan. So far, though, while they may be called evil monsters who want to destroy the world, the one we see is in practice somewhat more reasonable and amenable. (And there's talking cats, because epic fantasy.)

An epic fantasy heroine must be someone secretly special, but seemingly inconsequential. A young girl, perhaps, who lost an arm in a way we don't yet know. But actually the daughter of a major figure in the world. But actually the keeper of huge secrets. But actually the host of an Old God. But actually possessing perhaps the most powerful magic of her world. But actually special.

This is Maika Halfwolf: she's seventeen when the story begins. A major war between Arcanic and human forces ended a few years back with a huge magical event that the humans think the Arcanics deliberately triggered. The war was otherwise inconclusive -- the borders are in the same place, and the humans are still pushing those borders, led by the obligatory all-female order of religious zealots who also have not-magical-via-a-footnote powers. And the Arcanics are much weaker, in many ways, than the humans suspect. Maika may have the key to winning a new war, for one side or the other. But, right now, she's looking for revenge on the humans she blames for her mother's death, and for a way to control that hungry Old God within her.

So: big continent with a wall in the middle, races ready to go to war again, lots of specific magic and looks-like-magic powers, decayed former gods and ominous forces from outside the world. Looks exactly like epic fantasy.

Liu musters the tropes well -- Maika is a strong, interesting character, headstrong in all of the usual epic-fantasy-protagonist ways while still being an individual. The world around her is big and complicated, and even the minor "villains" have depth and quirks. Takeda's art -- I think she's working in watercolors over ink, since she does the whole thing, pencils to color -- is equally rich and detailed, with instantly recognizable people and amazing spaces and fantastic objects for them to fight with and race through.

This is a good epic fantasy, in a medium that hasn't had much good epic fantasy. I personally have read more than enough epic fantasy in my day, but I guess there's always room for a little more if it's done with style and verve. Monstress does that.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #71: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

A family of six flees a war-torn country, after American troops abandon it and let "invaders" from the other half of what used to be the same country conquer the portion they used to protect. The family has to sneak out by boat, crammed in with others, across an open sea, and hope for help and refugee status on the other end. They make it to the USA, the country they picked, and assimilate as best they can, working hard, living in small spaces, getting spat on by the natives.

Three decades later, one of those refugee children is a doctor; the others all productive members of society as well. The parents are naturalized citizens, and separated. And the third of those four children -- Thi Bui, who was only a few years old when they fled -- is becoming a mother herself, and investigating her family's stories and history to learn more about where she came from.

This is The Best We Could Do. It's an immigrant story, which is to say the most American kind of story possible. (If you disagree with me about that, the door is that way. Don't let it hit you as you leave.)

Thi Bui had a complicated relationship with her parents -- they were demanding and tough the way a lot of first-generation immigrant parents were, trying to keep up the traditions of their homeland and be more American than anyone else at the same time. She was the third girl of the four kids -- the youngest was the only boy -- which means her sisters, nearly ten years older, got to fight the battles so that she could have it a little easier. This book is the story of those complicated relationships, through the life stories of those parents, all the way up to the present day.

The Best We Could Do is a graphic novel that took Bui around fifteen years to make -- not the writing and drawing, or not entirely, but gathering the stories of her family and writing her way into them. She had to find this story, to make it out of the materials in front of her, and that took time. This may be one of the best examples of the maxim "everyone has one great book in them" -- but I don't want to jinx Bui. She may go on to tell other stories as well, and they may take less than fifteen years. (I hope so: it would be a shame not to have other books by her, when she can make books this strong.)

But right now we have this book, and it's an engrossing, encompassing view of the lives of one Vietnamese-American family. A book of tradition and hard work and fighting against outside forces and leaping at a chance for safety and happiness. Again, a quintessentially American story, and a great one.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 3/10/18

This week, I got one book from the library and several from a comics shop. (And none directly from publishers.) The good news is that means I'm likely to read most or all of these books quickly.

The library book was You & A Bike & A Road, a graphic novel by Eleanor Davis that has no explanatory copy on it whatsoever. It's published by Koyama Press, but that's basically the only thing the outside of the book says. I think this is the nonfictional story of a long bike trip Davis took, but who knows? I've never seen blind-boxing applied to book design before, and I'm not sure it's the best idea. But this was a library book, which means it's low-risk to me, and I did like How to Be Happy, Davis's book of short comics stories.

And new books I bought included the below:

Jack Staff, Vol. 2: Soldiers by Paul Grist. Last month I finally got to the first volume, a decade or more after this series ended, and the comics shop I went to had the other three books, plus what I think is the last volume of Kane that I missed before that. But let's start slow, with this book....

Paper Girls, Vol. 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang. I'm still not entirely sure I trust Vaughhan to tell a full, satisfying story, but I'll give this one another volume to see where it's going. I did like volumes one and two, which is a good sign.

Descender, Vol. 4 continues the space opera series by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen -- and see my reviews of volumes one and two and three for more details.  This is not particularly hard SF, but it's smart space opera, which is about as close as I've seen comics ever get.

And last is Dave Sim's High Society, the second collection of his long-running curate's egg of a comic Cerebus. I've now got two volumes, which I may read soon. I think finding anything deeper into this series, at this point, requires buying them online, so we'll see if I get sucked back in that far.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Book-A-Day #70: The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven by Kim Dong Hwa

Once again I see that I read the first book of a trilogy nearly a decade ago (The Color of Earth, in 2009), carefully shelved the following two books, and left them there for "someday."

Well, "left them there" is understating it: I had to move these books around repeatedly, looking at them over and over again, and somehow (I'm not sure how) saving them from my 2011 flood that destroyed so many other things I thought I wanted to read more quickly.

But every one of us has a million things we didn't do, and far fewer that we actually did do. As we get older, focusing on the first makes less and less sense -- those things are almost infinite.

So I finally did read The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven, the bulk of a trilogy by Korean manwha creator Kim Dong Hwa, retelling the story of his mother's adolescence, nearly a century ago in sleepy rural Korea. (Dong Hwa's note, I realize only now, does not say this is his parents' story, so I wonder about the strapping young man who is the hero of these books, and how he relates, if at all, to the author's actual father.)

Ehwa is sixteen, or so the flap copy tells us -- the books themselves never mention her age. There's a lot they don't mention, though: this trilogy is set in a small village somewhere in Korea, and if we weren't told it was the twentieth century, there's nothing here to clue us into that. Life goes on here as it always has, in a quiet, pastoral way.

In the first book, Ehwa had crushes on two local young men -- first the monk Chung-Myung, and then the orchard farmer's son Sunoo. But this is a romantic story -- Dong Hwa spent most of his career making romantic stories for young women -- so we know it will end with a true love, even if there are a lot of tears and long speeches about emotions before then.

And there are plenty of speeches about emotions: from Ehwa; from her mother, a widowed tavern-keeper; from the men they both love; and from nearly everyone else in this small Korean town, who are all obsessed with talking about women as flowers and men as butterflies and other unsubtle metaphors. Each page is pleasant, and the dialogue is true, but a reader may begin to wonder if rural Koreans ever think of anything else, or if that's why they are still so rural and backward in 1920ish.

I'm picking on these books, which are sweet and lovely -- Dong Hwa is good at drawing expressions, and at showing character in his faces. And the dialogue, as I said, is true -- it's only that there's so very very much of it in the six-hundred-plus pages of these books.

I suspect the natural audience for this trilogy is both substantially younger and substantially more female than I am, so my reaction doesn't mean much. My sense is that these books are exceptionally good for their kind, and I did enjoy reading them. It's only that sweet romances tend to bring out the Marvin the Paranoid Android in me....

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #69: The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec

Books can be based on anything: a random thought, a meme, a movie, a video game, a common saying, some old story the author wants to fix. But this is the only book I know based on a chart.

Georges Perec was a French writer of the mid-twentieth century, connected with the Oulipo group and deeply interested in making fiction based on arbitrary rules and other restrictions. He's probably best known on my side of the Atlantic for A Void, a novel that doesn't use the letter E. (He seems to be best-known in general for Life: A User's Manual.)

The cover proclaims this small book to be The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise, but it actually has a much longer title inside, translated faithfully from the French equivalent: The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise. And that longer title contains the bones of this novella-length work in embryo: this is a book of particulars, of roadblocks, of options, of a nearly choose-your-own-adventure style of choices and of being driven down those choices one by one in turn, with no real choice.

The endpapers contain the chart that this book was based on -- though, oddly, the two seem to have been translated by different people, so we have "engineer" one place and "professor" the other. (David Bellos translated the book, and also provided a helpful introduction. He may have also translated the chart, and used different terms for some unknown reason.) It's a flow-chart, assuming you are a man in some middle-rank position in some random French company in the mid-60s, seeking to buttonhole your boss to ask for a raise. There are, as there must be, various reasons why doing so is not possible or advisable at any given moment -- the boss's daughters have measles, or he has a fishbone from lunch in his stomach, or he doesn't look up when you knock, or he's simply not there at all, among several others -- and, if those are the case on any cycle around the chart, you must start again at the beginning.

The chart itself was created (likely in a somewhat simpler and less silly form) by a French computer scientist, Jacques Perriaud, who then apparently set out to find a novelist who would follow it "as a computer would" and turn it into fiction. That is perhaps even more bizarre than the fact that Perec actually did so. The resulting work is written as if one long run-on sentence (though a careful reader can see where periods and other punctuation would be) and cycles through all of the options on that chart, some of them repeatedly on every cycle, until finally, after eighty pages, getting in front of that boss, finding him in a receptive mood, making the case for a raise, and getting a generally favorable response.

This is obviously a literary stunt, and anyone's interest in it will be entirely based on how much she likes literary stunts. I found it short enough not to wear out its welcome, and weird enough to be fun -- particularly since the 50 years and an ocean between Perec's working world and mine have changed many aspects of office life. It is definitely one of the quirkiest books I've read, and I treasure it for that.