Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #111: The Economist Book of Business Quotations edited by Bill Ridgers

Reviewing books of quotes is a mug's game, and I do not intend to be a mug. However, I am doing this Book-A-Day thing, and this here is the book that I finished today. So let me see if I can say anything coherent and/or useful about it.

That book is The Economist Book of Business Quotations, edited by Bill Ridgers, a staff writer at the eponymous pinko (in color and in nothing else) broadsheet newspaper. It's a small-format hardcover, with a little more than two hundred pages of quotes in a moderately-sized type and similar leading, arranged alphabetically by topic and all on some aspect or other of the working and financial world. The quotes occasionally dip back to Shakespeare, and I noticed one biblical quote, but, for the most part, they start at the first Gilded Age of a century and a quarter ago and mostly cluster in the second half of the 20th century, so that they will be familiar to The Economist's readers.

Most of those quotes, as you'd expect, are along the Gordon Gecko line: they reassure Economist readers that spending all of their time in dogged pursuit of ever more money by crushing the competition and selling their wives and chattels into slavery is entirely a good thing. There are a few contrary quotes, from comedians and other media figures and some others, but there are a whole bunch of Jack Welch quotes to counterbalance those, and quotes from others who are probably equally as sociopathic as he is.

If you want to know how the ruling class thinks, this is a scattershot and incomplete but moderately comprehensive look at that. And many of the quotes are amusing or interesting in their own right, as well -- particularly if you're the kind of person who hoards quotes (as I used to be, before the flood of '11 destroyed that hoard). And if you're looking for something to put in the annual report to justify shutting down that entire division and shipping their jobs to China, well... you've already had your secretary buy this with company money, haven't you?

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #110: The Great War by Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco is one of the great explainers of our day -- one of the top two or three working in comics today, and up there with the best TV talking heads and pure-prose nonfiction writers. So it's surprising to see him turn to a project that doesn't give him any scope for explanation: one that sees him present images, starkly, without dialogue or other details.

Previously, Sacco was best known for going to places -- generally war-torn, full of people vociferously arguing with each other using words as well as bullets -- and trying to get to the truth of some specific situation, sometimes taking years to distill his researches into comics. That method produced his books Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde, The Fixer, Footnotes in Gaza, and the shorter pieces collected in Journalism.

But now Sacco has done something completely different: a single, twenty-four-foot long image, without words or panel borders or any of the usual accouterments of comics, telling the story of one day entirely in images run together. That thing is not quite a book, but you'll probably find it considered a book for most purposes, and it's called The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme. The package also comes with a booklet that includes some annotations of the panorama by Sacco and an essay about the Somme by historian Adam Hochschild.

But the center of gravity of the package is Sacco's single long picture, presenting a god's eye view of that first day of the Somme, from somewhere above and behind the British lines. Only the commander, General Haig, is identifiable: otherwise Sacco depicts the British army as a mass of interchangeable parts, a horde of men driven to the same task and indistinguishable from each other. That gives Great War a scope and sweep that Sacco hasn't aimed for in the past, though at the cost of eliminating any individuals or specific events -- this is a book about a historical moment, not the people caught up in it. Sacco's short introduction explains some of his techniques here -- he's broken the usual laws of proportion and perspective to jam his images together more strongly, in a style inspired by the Bayeaux Tapestry and similar medieval works.

Great War is detailed and fascinating, like a violent Where's Waldo? for history buffs. But, even with all of the explosions and bodies in the second half, it feels bloodless, because of the distance and detached perspective. We don't even see the Germans, on their side of no-man's land, because the shots and shells and barbed wire are in the way. But that makes this less of a battle and more of a machine for death -- perhaps that's exactly what Sacco wanted, but it all becomes cold and mechanical and fatalistic.

So this a lovely and fascinating artifact, but I don't know that it tells us anything about the Great War that we didn't already know, or gives us a usefully different perspective on that war. I found myself wondering if the style and matter wouldn't have been better served as an art project -- perhaps making the panels five times as high and wide, so they could be installed in a museum, snaking around and around to display all of the art. Sacco's art could stand that kind of magnification, I think, and that would let the viewer enter into the art and the battle in a way this book-sized version doesn't.

But, until and unless my pipe dream comes to pass, what we have is the size and shape of a book. The Great War probably won't be considered the equal of Sacco's best books; it's simpler and more straightforward than they are. But it's still motivated and informed by Sacco's analytical eye and precise hand: it's a fine snapshot of one day that was instrumental in forming the modern world.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/19

The Mail Fairy [1] brought me more packages this week, which means I have something to write about here. I haven't read any of them yet, as usual. (This is because I'm stuck in the middle of a literary novel that's pleasant, but not as engaging as I'd hoped. And I know it's a literary novel because it's set in three time periods, and hardly anything is happening in any of them.) But I can still tell you some things about these books, even if I haven't read them yet. So here's what seems interesting about them:

Unwrapped Sky is the first novel by the Ditmar-winning Australian fantastist Rjurik Davidson, which nails its colors to the mast of the New Weird. (In case anyone else's thoughts run down the same channels mine did: no, he doesn't seem to have any connection to Avram. It's a common name.) Unwrapped Sky is a Tor hardcover, which hit stores on the 15th of April. It's set in the ancient city of Caeli-Amur, saved from external conquerors by minotaurs a century before and now ruled by three Houses. (I suspect the Houses are of minotaurs, and that the minotaurs are near neighbors, but the description doesn't make all of the details clear.) In any case, it's a city with an oligarchy, and of course revolutionaries are taking aim at that rulership, and Unwrapped Sky is a story of three people -- a revolutionary, a government functionary, and a philosopher-assassin -- in the middle of that struggle.

Vertical has at least a couple of manga volumes coming out this month, because I have two of them in front of me. First up is Wolfsmund, Vol. 4 by Mitsuhisa Kuji, continuing the tough, bloody retelling of the William Tell story. (I looked at the third volume for Day 44 of the current Book-A-Day run, if you're interested in more details.)

Also from Vertical is Shuzo Oshimi's Flowers of Evil, Vol. 9, continuing the story of a creepy love triangle among middle schoolers. (The Japanese standard is to set a lot of these stories in middle school, since that's less academically demanding than their cramtastic three-year high school -- and many of those manga are silently turned into high school settings for American consumption, especially if there's any sexual content. Or, at least, that's how I understand it.) I've been gathering these on a shelf to read in a clump -- though I'm missing #6 for some reason -- and I expect to read and review at least a few of them this year during Book-A-Day.

The Ultra Thin Man is neither about an alcoholic detective couple or a condom, despite what the title might make you expect. It's a SF novel by Patrick Swenson -- his first novel -- and it's a Tor hardcover coming on August 12. (Swenson runs the small press Fairwood, and the fact that he's not trying to publish this himself speaks well for his intelligence and grasp of how much any one person can do in publishing.) Ultra Thin Man is a thriller set in the 22nd century, set in an interstellar polity and focusing on two detectives who, of course, discover that their case has vastly deeper and more dangerous roots than they expected.

Seanan McGuire is one of the hardest-working writers in modern SFF -- under her own name and her Hugo-nominated pseudonym Mira Grant -- and she's back on May 6th with Sparrow Hill Road, the first book in a new series about the ghosts of America. This one is about Rose Marshall, the phantom hitchhiker, who's been fleeing the man who killed her sixty years ago, and who decides now is the time to stop running. I don't know if she's a series character -- I guess we'll have to find out.

Ellen Datlow is one of the top anthologists in the business, good for an original anthology or two each year, plus usually more carefully curated reprint anthologies -- she has a knack for finding/remembering/acquiring the right stories for her themes, and an equally good knack for picking themes specific enough to tie a book together without being so specific to make the stories all the same. She's back with Lovecraft's Monsters this month from Tachyon: it's a reprint anthology, with eighteen modern stories about Lovecraftian monsters, each one with a John Coulthart illustration to introduce it. The stories are almost all from the last two decades -- except "Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole" by Wladrop & Utley, and two 1988 stories, from Thomas Ligotti and Kim Newman. The rest of the table of contents is a who's who of modern horror: Gaiman, Barron, Lansdale, Kiernan, Hodge.

Kristen Britain is back with the fifth book in her "Green Rider" series, Mirror Sight, a May 6th hardcover from DAW. It's been three years since the last book, but this one is nearly eight hundred pages long, which explains a lot of that. (This is also a series that's been running for sixteen years; Britain is a writer who's always had a few years between books.) I haven't read this series before, but it's secondary-world fantasy, and I think without a single overarching plot for the series and a thankful lack of the need to save the entire world every time out.

There's a new collection of Simpsons comics this month as well: Bart Simpson to the Rescue!, which collects issues 53-54 and 56-58 of Bart's solo title. (Issue 55 was an epic three-part story, "The Princess Principle," focusing on Lisa, which may be why it doesn't appear here. And, yes, Your Humble Correspondent does know everything, or at least everything a quick google can tell him.) Rescue! is from HarperDesign, and has work by John Costanza, Carol Lay, Peter Kuper, and other people you wouldn't expect. (Hey, everybody's got to eat, right?)

Melanie Rawn is definitively back, with the third book in three years of her current secondary-world series about a traveling theatrical troupe: Thornlost is a Tor hardcover, hitting stores April 29th. Glad to see that this is clicking for her, and I hope it's clicking for her fans as well: I haven't read this series yet, but I enjoyed her late-'90s aborted trilogy from DAW: The Ruins of Ambrai and The Mageborn Traitor.

And last for this week is Daryl Gregory's new novel Afterparty, set in a near-future world where designer drugs can rewire anyone's mind -- and ubiquitous data and fabrication technologies mean that practically anyone can create and use those drugs. In that world, the scientist who created Numinous -- a drug that gives its users the unshakable belief that they have communed directly with God -- breaks out of a psychiatric ward to try to fix the world she helped create. It's a Tor hardcover, coming April 22nd.

[1] I doubt the UPS guy would be happy to hear we call him that at our house, but he doesn't have to know, does he?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #109: The Complete Don Quixote by Cervantes and Davis

There was a time when "classics in comics" meant short pamphlet comics, the equivalent of Cliffs Notes and about as faithful to the original work. Sure, some of them were good for what they were -- the long history of Classics Illustrated has quite a number of gems in it, in its various incarnations -- but those were almost an accident, since the point of the exercise was to create a steady stream of product. It was classy, it was educational, and it got bought in giant piles by schools and civic organizations and libraries and so forth, to instruct and lead the young of several generations.

That era ended quite a while ago, though -- the CI revivals of the past two or three decades have all been clearly revivals, and none of them have taken quite as strongly as the original. (Though they've still provided the same thing as the original: educational stuff in a form that educators and librarians hope kids will enjoy on their way to the "real thing.") But there's instead been a continuing stream of individual classics adaptations, from individual artists, that don't strive to put the original works into identical yellow-colored boxes for classroom use.

Seymour Chwast has adapted a few book over the past decade, for example. R. Crumb went back to the beginning to draw his version of The Book of Genesis. The Graphic Canon is a huge project -- three fat volumes so far -- full of adaptations by dozens of artists of as many famous works. And of course P. Craig Russell has had his regular graphic novels adapting operas, a combination no one else would have dreamed of.

Add to that list The Complete Don Quixote, a graphic novel adapted and drawn by Rob Davis from the original novel by Miguel de Cervantes. (I don't see any indication of what translation was used here -- other than Cervantes from the original Arabic of Cide Hamete Benegeli -- so I assume either Davis did his own translation from the original Spanish or used a safely out-of-copyright translation.) Like the original, Davis's Quixote divides into two books -- which were originally published separately -- and he uses the voice of Cervantes, from his prison cell, as his narrator.

I haven't read the Quixote in close to two decades, and I'd forgotten just how funny this story is: Quixote himself, the deluded nobleman-turned-knight-errant, is amusing enough, but his squire, Sancho Panza, is just that tiny bit closer to reality (and not nearly as stupid as he and everyone else assumes) to make his fervent following of Quixote both sad and hilarious. The other characters around them are mostly straight men: they're either trying to get Quixote back from his delusions or indulging him in them to amuse themselves (sometimes in horribly funny, Jackass-level pranks, showing that is not a new impulse at all).

But I'm not going to tell you the story of Don Quixote here: it's a masterpiece of world literature, the source of reams of learned commentary -- and, as I just said, still fun and sprightly and funny even hundreds of years later. You'd be much better served just reading the book -- it's out of copyright, so I'm sure several translations are only a click away, and even more modern renderings won't cost much in electronic form.

Of course, Cervantes' novel is a long one, and Davis's adaptation would be an excellent way to dip your toe into the Quixote, to see if its humor fits your tastes. It's also a lovely and amusing adaptation even for people who have already read Cervantes -- one of the better adaptations of this current cycle, keeping the humor and matter of the original but giving it a new gloss and skin to better help a new audience find it.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #108: Sex Criminals, Vol. 1 by Fraction & Zdarsky

Comics, more than any other medium -- yes, even the movies -- are great at the One Big Idea story. And the more visual and striking the idea the better. One man dresses as a bat to fight crime. Another draws his family's history and the darkest part of the 20th century as an allegory with animal heads. A kid's stuffed tiger comes alive to have adventures with him -- but only when they're alone. If you can think it, it can be a comic -- the only special effects needed are paper, ink, color, and imagination.

Those ideas can be pretty baroque, these days, after around a century of men in tights and domestic squabbles and teenage hijinks and cute kids -- the baseline has been set, and creators can bounce off from it in any direction. That's my theory about Sex Criminals, at least, which is somewhere in the loose territory defined by superheroes, crime stories, romance, and wild talents.

Suzie has a surprising ability: time stops all around her when she orgasms. Until the first time she had sex, she wasn't 100% sure that was weird -- who doesn't assume that her experiences are normal? But it is weird, and she came to get used to The Quiet, as she called it, as she grew up and got a job as a librarian.

Until she met Jon, who can do the very same thing. Luckily, their first encounter led to simultaneous orgasms -- or maybe this ability is a bit more elastic than that, but it looks pretty simultaneous -- and they each realized what they'd found. Doubly luckily, they like each other even aside from sharing that power, and they start to tell each other their stories and experiment with their abilities.

So much for Sex. The Criminals part is more complicated, and gets into the ways the worldbuilding isn't quite as solid. Suzy is a librarian, but that library is going to be knocked down and taken over by a bank. Oddly, the library doesn't seem to be a government function, but some private business, a rogue branch of Mudie's that fell through a timeslip. It doesn't have the problems of a government branch: lack of funding, opposition from politicians, bad leadership. And it can't solve its problems the way a government library could -- you don't see local banks evicting libraries very often, or their few librarians squirreling away the books in their apartments to save them.

All that is to say: Suzie needs a lot of money to save the library. Jon works at the big bank in town -- an unnamed, probably medium-sized town, situated nowhere in particular -- and already has anger issues, so he determines that they should steal the money from the bank that they need to pay back. It's elegant, certainly, but it ignores a lot of issues -- firstly, wouldn't the bank be surprised and suspicious when the nearly-insolvent library suddenly pays off its building loan?

Anyway, they start robbing banks, And they start attracting attention. And they have never considered that they discovered each other serendipitously -- in what seems to be their early twenties -- which implies that they're not alone. And that's how they become Sex Criminals.

Sex Criminals Vol. 1: One Weird Trick collects the first five issues of this ongoing series, written by current hot Marvel writer Matt Fraction and drawn by Chip Zdarsky. The story is not complete here, not by a long shot. But it's a good beginning, and Suzie is an engaging, wonderful character -- and Fraction was very smart to focus on her, since that makes this more the story of a woman's wants and needs and loves, when it could so easily have gotten silly or self-parodic or squickily male-fantasy-fulfillment. (See the movie Cashback for a related idea that skates much closer to the black hole of creepiness.) 

Sex Criminals has gotten a lot of attention, because it is smart and funny and feels deeply true about this one young woman's voice and life and desire. Zdarsky's art has a solid indy look to it, full of figures with realistic proportions and regular body language. (Which is exceedingly rare these days, in any comic book about people who can do strange things.) And Fraction tells this story in a compellingly gnarly way, having Suzie address the reader directly and moving among levels of flashback seamlessly to merge Suzie's childhood, teen years, and time with Jon. It's too early to say where the story is going, but, from the chunk we have so far, it's exciting and engaging and sexy in all of the best ways. And who doesn't want more comics about fun, happy, fulfilling sex?

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, April 18, 2014

Things John Darnielle Has Taught Me

Note 1: I did this one before, for Tom Waits. It may become an irregular thing.

Note 2: I could have said "the Mountain Goats," but JD is tMG, for most purposes, so I kept it parallel.

"When you punish a person for dreaming his dream,
Don't expect him to thank or forgive you."
 -The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton

"Our friends say it's darkest before the sun rises
We're pretty sure they're all wrong."
 - No Children

(and also)

"People say friends don't destroy one another,
What do they know about friends"
 - Game Shows Touch Our Lives

"But selling acid was a bad idea
And selling it to a cop was a worse one."
 - Fall of the Star High School Running Back

"What will I do when I don't have you
When I finally get what I deserve?"
 - Oceanographer's Choice

"If we never make it back to California
I want you to know I love you
But my love is like a dark cloud full of rain
That's always right there up above you."
 - See America Right

"And it was hard but you were brave, you are splendid
And we will never be alone in this world
no matter what they say
We're gonna be okay."
 - San Bernardino

"I am going to make it through this year
If it kills me."
 - This Year

"Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive
Do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away
Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make
Climb limits past the limits
Jump in front of trains all day."
 - Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1

"I can remember when we were in high school
Our dreams were like fugitive warlords
Plotting triumphant returns to the city
Keeping Tec-9's tucked under the floorboards."
 - Home Again Garden Grove

"I'm gonna get myself in fighting trim
Scope out every angle
Of unfair advantage
I'm gonna bribe the officials
I'm gonna kill all the judges
It's gonna take you people years
To recover from all of the damage."
 - Up the Wolves

And, more than anything else:

"I dreamt that I was perched atop a throne of human skulls
On a cliff above the ocean, howling wind and shrieking seagulls
And the dream went on forever, one single static frame
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name."

Book-A-Day 2014 #107: Mush! by Glenn Eichler & Joe Infurnari

A lot of comics today aspire to be summer blockbuster movies, which can get tedious. Some of them aspire to be literary novels (pretty rare) or comedy shows on minor cable networks (a smattering of indy work) or documentaries (a lot of nonfiction comics).

But Mush! is the first graphic novel I've seen that aims to be a heartwarming workplace comedy, something you'd expect in mid-season on ABC sometime in the late '90s. If nothing else, you have to grant it the courage of its convictions.

This is less surprising when you learn that its writer, Glenn Eichler is a TV comedy writer by day (creator of Daria, writer for The Colbert Report for a number of years), though he's written a graphic novel before: Stuffed!, which was drawn by Nick Bertozzi. (Since two points make a trend, it's clear our man Eichler likes his exclamation points.) This time out, Eichler is working with Joe Infurnari, part of the Act-i-vate webcomics collective and multiple Eisner nominee.

And they're telling the story of a team of sled dogs, somewhere in the frozen northlands -- Infurnari is himself Canadian, so he comes by this material honestly -- as they squabble and plot and flirt and grumble their way through a month or so of late summer or fall. (Assuming their unnamed location has more than two seasons: frozen and not-frozen.) There's also the stub of a story about the dogs' owners -- a man who loves the solitude and self-reliance and his relatively recent girlfriend who's not as sure -- but the dogs are the focus of most of the book.

Buddy is dumb and lovable and big and desperately hopes he gets to mate with Venus again. Venus would prefer not to be bred at all this year, but that's not her choice. (Eichler plays this for laughs, but it could have been body horror in the right, probably female, hands.) Guy is sneaky and plotting and wants to take the lead-dog job from Dolly. Dolly isn't sure she wants to stay lead dog, because it's a lot of responsibility and she really just likes to run. Winston is a puffed-up purebred with delusions of grandeur. And Fiddler is deep and moody and thoughtful.

And they circle those issues for a hundred and twenty pages, in nine chapters that could be the episodes of a season-long arc on a HBO or Showtime, and everything is resolved in the end. Mush! is fun -- and Infurnari's art is lovely and evocative, making his characters expressive while keeping them dogs and lovingly showing both the snowy wilderness and the homier enclosure of the dogs -- but it aims to be the NewsRadio of sled-dog stories, which is a weird and unlikely ambition. But it's successful in that aim, and I have to salute any work that decides to do something so idiosyncratic and does it well. Mush! will never be on the short list of Great American Graphic Novels, maybe, but it's got a great beat, and you can dance to it.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #106: No Longer Human (3 vols.) by Usamaru Furuya

With a quick Wikipedia gloss, I could pretend to be familiar with Osamu Dazai's novel No Longer Human -- not just his most famous book, but one of the major works of Japanese 20th century fiction -- and pontificate learnedly about the manga adaptation of that novel by Usamaru Furuya, which interestingly adapts some of Dazai's pre-WW II world into the dawn of the 21st century and translates some of the devices of that novel directly into manga equivalents, even inserting Furuya into the story as a minor framing character.

But I won't do that -- at least, not exactly. I've never read Dazai's novel, and I prefer not to lie when I have a choice. What I know about, I do from investigation after reading Furuya's excellent version of the story.

But that adaptation of No Longer Human seems to be a remarkably careful translation of a major work into another artistic form, down to turning Dazai's original three-memoranda structure into three manga volumes, and using Furuya's own discovery of the "real" diary of main character Yozo Oba online as a precisely equivalent framing device to the one Dazai used in the novel. I was surprised to see that the Oba of the novel is a manga artist as well; while reading the books, I had assumed that was part of Furuya's translation into the modern world.

But all of the elements of No Longer Human are like that: a complex mix of Dazai's original semi-autobiographical story, based on his own life in the 1930s, and the trappings of an Oba of the modern day, born in the high years of Japan's bubble 1980s and living in a world of laptops and online "ouch" diaries.

For most of the length of No Longer Human, we don't know exactly what Oba's problem is: he's a young man who feels the need to "clown," to hide his true emotions so deeply he doesn't understand them himself, to mimic others and obsessively act to make them like him. That mimicry, and his youthful good looks, make him irresistible to nearly every woman he meets -- which is all-too-common for such self-destructive young men. He could be depressive, or perhaps have some disorder that damages empathy, so something else along those lines -- I'd like to think a young man like him in most modern countries would be able to get care for his problems, but maybe not. Whatever is wrong with Oba, it leaves him radically alone and full of inner torment, which he fights off with the usual ammunition: drinking, drugs, sex. And he's the son of a rich family, so he can indulge a lot before anything bad happens.

No Longer Human is the story of Oba's complex spiral: he dips, and rises again, and falls farther, and recovers, around and around again, losing more on every drop and diving further into addiction and self-loathing. He only has one male friend -- not a good friend at all, I'm afraid -- so it's also in large part the story of the women around him, as they each are seduced (almost inadvertently, most of the time; Oba is a misanthrope who hates others almost as much as he hates himself) and dragged through his torments. Some of them make it out the other side intact; some don't make it out at all.

Every generation has the story of the tormented youngster, from The Sorrows of Young Werther to Holden Caulfield. No Longer Human is the version from Japan, nearly a hundred years ago, but the specifics of time and place only ground it, not limit it. Furuya has proven that, by pulling it eighty years into its own future. It sometimes a tough read, full of Oba's self-loathing and destructive behavior -- but it's worth it, every single page. And even the Obas of this world are human -- in all of their complex, damaged horribleness, every bit of alienation and anger and raw nerves is the connection with the rest of humanity.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index