Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Itzkoff Watch Continues

One of my top-secret, highly-paid spies has slipped me information that indicates that this week's New York Times Book Review will have another "Across the Universe" column by a certain Dave Itzkoff.

In fact, I have seen a PDF of this column, which I will read and report back on once I get to a printer. Further mockery of Itzkoff should be expected.

It's another theme column, covering Neil Gaiman's new story collection Fragile Things and Absolute Sandman Volume 1, the massive compendium of the first half of the Sandman comic, written by Gaiman and illustrated by various folks.

First thoughts, before reading:
  1. Itzkoff's not going to cover much of the field if he only reviews at most two closely-related books once a month.
  2. I guess this answers the question of whether "science fiction" (Itzkoff being the official SF reviewer) includes "fantasy" for New York Times purposes.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Book-A-Day #106 (10/30): Chicken With Plums by Marjane Satrapi

Satrapi's fourth graphic novel, after the two volumes of Persepolis (about her own childhood) and Embroideries (a more loosely organized book about women's sexuality, more or less). This one is apparently the true story of Satrapi's grand-uncle, who willed himself to die over a week in 1959 in what I can only characterize as a pure snit.

I have very little sympathy for tortured artists, and that's what Nasser Ali Khan presents himself as -- a man too damaged to live once his wife breaks his precious musical instrument (a tar) during a fight (which seems to mostly be about how he's a self-pitying musician who doesn't do anything and leaves her to raise the family and make the steady income in the house).

You see this? This is the world's smallest violin, playing a sad song just for him.

Given that I thought the main character was an asshole, I didn't warm to this story much. It's a short graphic novel (84 pages), but it jumps around in time, perhaps because Nasser's story is pretty short and pointless to begin with.

I've liked each Satrapi book less than the one before (the first volume of Persepolis was her best work, I think), and I might just avoid her next one, unless I have a reason to believe she's reversed that trend. Perhaps a non-autobiographical story would reinvigorate her muse?

The Fabulous Book-A-Day Index!
Edited 1/2/07: the huge list of links was getting annoying, and screwing up my Book-A-Day searches, so I've killed them in these posts that had them.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Movie Log: The Cat Returns

I saw this a week ago now, with the boys, as our "Boys' Movie Saturday" selection. (This week, they wanted to watch Aladdin, but that ended up being Thing 1 poking through the 2nd disc of the 2-disc set and watching various odd things, so I'm not counting that.)

My memories are getting a bit faint now -- I'll try not to tax them too much.

The Cat Returns is a minor Studio Ghibli movie -- before I look it up on IMDB, I'll guess that it was done for TV or a direct-to-video release (what I think they call an OAV, if I'm not misusing that term). The title positions it as a sequel to Whisper of the Heart, since "the cat" here is a figurine that played a role in that movie (and came to life in a short story-within-a-story near the end, supposedly written by Whisper's heroine). Presumably, we're to think of The Cat Returns as another story about the Baron character from Whisper's story-in-a-story, and probably as having been written by that girl what's-her-name.

Well, IMDB doesn't entirely clear things up -- it seems that this started as a twenty-minute short for a theme park, but grew along the way. (I can't tell if it was released theatrically in Japan, but it certainly doesn't seem to have been in the USA.)

In any case, it's a small, minor, cute little movie about a girl and some cats. She saves a cat from a speeding truck on the way home from school one day, and soon finds herself in the land of the cats with multiplying troubles. My boys enjoyed it, but didn't love it -- I bet girls would like it better, and cat-crazy girls the most. For adults, I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to see it unless (like me) you're trying to work through all of the Studio Ghibli movies.

Book-A-Day #105 (10/29): Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Exile by Aaron Allston

Since this book doesn't publish until February 27, I won't talk about plot points (they wouldn't make much sense without knowing the previous three books in the "Legacy of the Force" subseries, anyway, and #3, Bloodlines, doesn't even publish for a month).

I can say I had more fun reading this than I have with most recent Star Wars novels, whatever that means -- it felt zippier than previous "Legacy of the Force" books to me (on the other hand, I've just been on vacation for a week, so that could just mean that I'm not sleep-deprived for once). If you have any reason to believe your tastes are like mine when it comes to space opera, you'll probably like this. If you're on the Star Wars-hater side to begin with, though, this book won't convince you -- try Sean Stewart's Yoda book or Matt Stover's Shatterpoint for that.

The Fabulous Book-A-Day Index!
Edited 1/2/07: the huge list of links was getting annoying, and screwing up my Book-A-Day searches, so I've killed them in these posts that had them.

Book-A-Day #104 (10/28): The Complete Peanuts, 1961 to 1962 by Charles M. Schulz

It's the sixth volume in the series collecting all of Schulz's Peanuts cartoons, in order. What's left to say about these books at this point? The books are still wonderfully designed (by the cartoonist Seth), the cartoons themselves are still little gems of bittersweet humor, and Schulz's drawing had hit its expressive peak by this point. (Though I still have to admit my personal preference for those first couple of years of the strip, when the humor was a bit meaner and the character-models hadn't quite gelled yet.)

This is good stuff, and the best thing about strip cartoons is that you don't need to start anywhere in particular -- if you happen to find any of the Complete Peanuts books cheaply, grab them and start reading there.

The Fabulous Book-A-Day Index!
Edited 1/2/07: the huge list of links was getting annoying, and screwing up my Book-A-Day searches, so I've killed them in these posts that had them.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Book-A-Day #103 (10/27): PvP, Vol. 1: At Large by Scott Kurtz

The first collection of the popular webcomic, which I bought because I found it incredibly cheap at the comics shop this week. I've been reading this online for close to a year now, but hadn't had it in any dead-tree form before now.

And, damn it, I think I'm now going to have to buy the second collection, because this is really funny stuff -- and it's even funnier reading a whole bunch at once. I hate it when that happens.

The Fabulous Book-A-Day Index!
Edited 1/2/07: the huge list of links was getting annoying, and screwing up my Book-A-Day searches, so I've killed them in these posts that had them.

Quote of the Week

"History, n. -- an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools."
- Ambrose Bierce, from The Devil's Dictionary

Friday, October 27, 2006

Mean Principal Bans Underpants Girls

Since Antick Musings is your source for all Captain Underpants-related news, I needed to pass on this:

According to Newsday, a fine Long Island fishwrap, three 17-year old seniors at Long Beach High School were sent home on Wednesday because they had dressed up as Captain Underpants (with capes and tighty whiteys over flesh-colored leotards) and their principal thought they looked "too naked." Wednesday was Superhero Day at the school, part of a week-long series of odd dress-up days that leads Your Intrepid Reporter to wonder if they ever get any work done in this school. (And also to wonder whether they expected demure and sensible costumes on Superhero Day -- clearly no one in administration at Long Beach High has been in a comics shop recently.)

It's a good thing no one dressed up as Tarot, Cavewoman, or Witchblade -- or that principal would see what "comic book naked" really means...

The Dreaded To-Be-Read "Pile"

Patrick, over at Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, has dared us all to reveal the contents of our to-be-read piles. While I don't have time enough to type in all of the titles, I can give you an overview, since -- inspired by him -- I've just measured my shelves.

My unread shelves total about eighty-seven and a half feet (a thousand and fifty inches). The books range in size from a quarter inch to two inches, so let's call it about three books per two inches for a rough average -- that gives me about fifteen hundred unread books. In recent years, I'm averaging reading about three hundred twenty books a year, of which roughly 62 percent (or one hundred ninety-eight books) were for myself (and not for work). At that rate, if I don't add any more books to the stack, I can finish up everything I already have in only about seven and a half years.)

Some of the things I have to read, choosing one book semi-randomly from each distinct area or pile, are:
  • The Rainbow Fairy Book by Andrew Lang, illustrated by Michael Hague
  • A History of Britain (three volumes) by Simon Schama
  • The Plot by Will Eisner
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
  • American Poetry (Library of America, probably edited by someone, in four very large volumes)
  • The Letters of Evelyn Waugh edited by Mark Amory
  • Collected Poems by Philip Larkin
  • The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco
  • The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
  • Yaleen by Ian Watson
  • White Time by Margo Lanagan
All of those books share two things in common: 1) I can read their titles, more or less, from where I'm sitting now, and 2) I'm not likely to get to any of them this year.

Yet Another iTunes Meme

Because memes are much more fun than actual thought, right? This one I picked up from Paul Cornell:

Earliest Track in My Library:
The Raymond Scott Quintet, "Powerhouse" (1937) -- along with seven other songs from that year on the same CD. You know this song; it's the one that plays whenever there's a machine run amok in any Warner Brothers cartoon of the '40s and '50s. See? You're humming it now.

Year from Which I Have Most Tracks:
1993 wins, with 704 tracks. That was the year the kind of music I like the most -- vaguely "alternative" rock with smart lyrics -- was actually popular, for a brief, shining, moment, so it makes sense.

Earliest TV Theme:

I only have a handful of TV show themes, and they're not categorized as that in iTunes, so trying to figure this out would be a pain and wouldn't tell me anything. Pass.

Five Star Ratings from the Year I was Born:
There are nine of them:
  1. "Golden Slumbers" by The Beatles
  2. "Victoria" by The Kinks
  3. "Arthur" by The Kinks
  4. "Cinnamon Girl" by Neil Young
  5. "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" by Pink Floyd
  6. "The Nile Song" by Pink Floyd
  7. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by The Rolling Stones
  8. "I Want To Take You Higher" by Sly and the Family Stone
  9. "Christmas" by The Who
Five Star Ratings from the Year I was Sixteen:
Twenty-one of them! I'll italicize the ones I actually listened to and loved at the time (as opposed to the ones I discovered later).
  1. "E=MC2" by Big Audio Dynamite
  2. "Take the Skinheads Bowling" by Camper Van Beethoven
  3. "Brothers in Arms" by Dire Straits
  4. "Anything, Anything (I'll Give You" by Dramarama
  5. "White Lies" by Jason & the Scorchers
  6. "Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)" by Kate Bush
  7. "Just Another Day" by Oingo Boingo
  8. "Dead Man's Party" by Oingo Boingo
  9. "No One Lives Forever" by Oingo Boingo
  10. "Wendell Gee" by R.E.M.
  11. "I Can't Hardly Wait (Tim Version)" by The Replacements
  12. "Here Comes a Regular" by The Replacements
  13. "Cannon Song" by Stan Ridgway
  14. "Road to Nowhere" by Talking Heads
  15. "Stay Up Late" by Talking Heads
  16. "Singapore" by Tom Waits
  17. "Cemetery Polka" by Tom Waits
  18. "Time" by Tom Waits
  19. "Bad (Live)" by U2
  20. "Love Comes Tumbling" by U2
  21. "I Held Her in My Arms" by Violent Femmes
Five Star Ratings from This Year:
Three, but they're all cheats: "Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)," "Sweet Thistle Pie," and "The World Is Mine" from Cracker's Greatest Hits Redux record (which featured re-recordings of their hits to sabotage the similar greatest hits collection from their old label, which had just dumped them). Some of the songs on Beth Orton's The Comfort of Strangers might slide up to five stars as I listen to them more, though. (And maybe something from the Elvis Costello-Allen Toussaint record The River in Reverse, though that's not as likely).

Top Ten on my Most Played List:
Probably the same as the last time I posted them:
  1. "Don't Drop the Baby" by The Judybats (36)
  2. "Better Things" by Fountains of Wayne (33)
  3. "Pictures of Matchstick Men" by Camper Van Beethoven (32)
  4. "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" by Elvis Costello and the Attractions (32)
  5. "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by U2 (32)
  6. "Little Red Light" by Fountains of Wayne (31)
  7. "Wall of Death" by R.E.M. (31)
  8. "Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas) (Live)" by They Might Be Giants (31)
  9. "Spider-Man" by Ramones (30)
  10. "Maureen" by Fountains of Wayne (29)

Book-A-Day #102 (10/26): The War Within by G.B. Trudeau

This isn't one of the major Doonesbury collections, but a smaller (one strip to a page), thematic one. The theme, as you might guess, is now-helmet-less B.D.'s problems dealing with his PTSD.

It's both funny and true, in that way Trudeau can achieve intermittently, though I don't have any first-hand knowledge of combat veterans or amputees, so I shouldn't claim too much for this on my own. (But it does seem that real live soldiers have been supporting this series of strips, which is a bit odd, considering how and when Doonesbury started.)

Anyway, it's a decent Doonesbury collection, but it is all about B.D.

The Fabulous Book-A-Day Index!
Edited 1/2/07: the huge list of links was getting annoying, and screwing up my Book-A-Day searches, so I've killed them in these posts that had them.

My Favorite Fantasy Novellas of 2005

And so we finish up on Day Five.

This will be my last list, and, following WFA rules (since those governed my reading and thinking this year) it consists of stories between 10,000 and 40,000 words. Since there are fewer stories of this length published, I just have ten stories to mention. And the list, like the others, is in alphabetical order by author:
  • "The Imago Sequence," Laird Barron (F&SF 5/05) -- I don't love it as much as some people do, but it's definitely a major story.
  • "In the Machine," Michael Cunningham (Specimen Days) -- Oh, it so counts as a novella. (Specimen Days is less of a novel than Van Vogt's most obvious fix-ups.) But this is a really good fantasy novella.
  • "Voluntary Committal," Joe Hill (20th Century Ghosts) -- A great, great creepy story. Everyone should read this. Read it before his novel comes out, when everyone in the world will be talking about how great Joe Hill is.
  • "UOUS," Tanith Lee (The Fair Folk, edited by Marvin Kaye) -- Speaking of creepy, this story ups the creepy quotient even from Hill's already high level. After a long era of sweet cutesy-pie fairies, and tall Tolkienesqe elves, we're finally (with stories like this and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) getting those mean, sneaky, folkloric "fair folk" back.
  • "Magic for Beginners," Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners and F&SF 9/05) -- It's the story of 2005, and one of Link's best, though I'm still not sure what it all means.
  • Another War, Simon Morden (Telos, published as a book) -- It's Lovecraftian, which I nearly always like when it's done well, and it's straightforward rather than being artsy (which I appreciated in the middle of reading a lot of artsy stories for World Fantasy).
  • "The Gypsies in the Wood," Kim Newman (The Fair Folk) -- It's a bit too long, and the structure is a bit wonky, but this is essentially an excellent novella with a very good short story stuck onto the front of it.
  • "The Last Ten Years in the Life of Hero Kai," Geoff Ryman (F&SF 12/05) -- I am inordinately fond of extremely structured stories, but I don't think that's the only reason I like this story; it's also damn good.
  • "Inside Job," Connie Willis (Asimov's 1/05) -- There are those who don't like Willis in her funny mode, but I hope even they will enjoy this odd tale, which runs straight down the line between SF and Fantasy, demanding to be both and neither at the same time.
  • "Even the Queen," Jane Yolen & Midori Snyder (The Fair Folk) -- I'm not entirely convinced by the ending, but otherwise this is an excellent story.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


From "The Sharpened Quill," a review of several recent books on Thomas Paine, in The New Yorker's October 16, 2006 issue, by Jill Lepore:
Thomas Paine is, at best, a lesser Founder. In the comic-book version of history that serves as our national heritage, where the Founding Fathers are like the Hanna-Barbera Super Friends, Paine is Aquaman to Washington's Superman and Jefferson's Batman; we never find out how he got his superpowers, and he only shows up when they need someone who can swim.

Book-A-Day #101 (10/25): Playboy: The Celebrities

Presumably, Playboy: The Celebrities was edited or compiled by someone, but you can't figure that out from the book itself; it credits an introduction by Hugh Hefner and an afterword by Gary Cole (Playboy's photo editor for the past thirty years), but nothing else. I imagine Cole probably put the book together, with Hefner having veto power, but it could easily have been someone completely different, or a shadowy cabal of Playboy functionaries. (Can a magazine have shadowy functionaries, by the way?)

From the title, you've already figured out the point: this is a collection of naked pictures, mostly tasteful, of supposedly famous women, mostly blonde. The standard of fame here is quite variable, and the book seems to be skewed to the last decade. So we have Brooke Burke, a minor cable TV personality, prominently featured, along with others of her ilk. The book opens with someone named Jamie Pressly, who is a fine example of the standard '90s Playboy blonde -- you know, the kind that Hefner needs to have six of in all of his creepy recent publicity photos? -- but whom I've never heard of.

I seem to recall that there are women who were much more famous in their day who appeared naked in Playboy than the ones who appear in this book, but it's possible memory is playing me false. (It's also possible that Playboy didn't secure adequate reprint rights for those hazily-remembered photos at the time, and so couldn't include them here.) In any case, the women here break down into several categories:
  • now-forgotten "European" actresses: Dominique Sanda, Marissa Berenson, Jane Birkin, Elke Sommer
  • minor pop stars trying to create a comeback: Jody Whatley, Samantha Fox, Deborah Gibson, LaToya Jackson, Belinda Carlisle
  • celebrities who posed naked long before they were famous: Vanna White, Madonna, Deborah Harry, Lauren Hutton
  • people current college students will recognize (though why anyone would expect college students to buy a $40 book is beyond me): the aforementioned Brooke Burke, Carmen Electra, Denise Richards, Gena Lee Nolin, Charisma Carpenter
  • people current nursing-home residents will recognize: Dian Parkinson, Nancy Sinatra, Carol Lynley
  • Playboy Playmates who went on to minor acting careers: Donna D'Errico, Pamela Anderson (whose original face, I am reminded, was actually quite cute), Erika Eleniak, Brande Roderick, Jenny McCarthy, Kelly Monaco, Anna Nicole Smith, Barbi Benton (from back in the days when Playmates could have authentic smiles rather than bad porn-movie come-hither looks)
  • John Derek's wives: Ursula Andress, Linda Evans, Bo Derek
  • supermodels trying to pretend they're not entirely skin and bones: Stephanie Seymour, Angie Everhart, Cindy Crawford, Rachel Hunter, Elle Macpherson, Naomi Campbell
  • actresses trying to sex up their careers with classy black-and-white shots: Joan Severance, Farrah Fawcett, Robin Givens, Brigitte Nielsen
  • the old standbys: Marilyn Monroe, Bettie Page, Jayne Mansfield
  • women who got naked because, apparently, it was the '70s: Melanie Griffith (looking younger than you can imagine), Suzanne Somers, Raquel Welch, Valerie Perrine, Kim Basinger
  • people I have never heard of: Kylie Bax, Teri Polo, Kiana Tom
  • and young women trying to get out of their families' shadows: Rae Dawn Chong, Mariel Hemingway, Sheri Belafonte
There is also a movie still of Sharon Stone from Basic Instinct (you know the one), which, of course is a cheat -- the movie had nothing to do with Playboy.

If you'd like naked photos of some appreciable fraction of those women in your own home -- and the pictures are all professional and many of them are very nice -- this is a book for you. If you would like words to explain or contextualize the nudity, you are out of luck -- this book has short bits of text at fore and aft, but otherwise is just captioned.

The Fabulous Book-A-Day Index!
Edited 1/2/07: the huge list of links was getting annoying, and screwing up my Book-A-Day searches, so I've killed them in these posts that had them.

Comic Shop Trip: 10/26

I needed to get to the comics shop (since I only make it there once a month to begin with), and I needed to drop off my 2007 health-care forms (they always seem to be due the week I'm on vacation), so I took a quick trip into the city.

I managed to get in and out of the office in about half an hour, without picking up my phone or opening my e-mail (though I did open and organize the pile of packages on my desk -- there's some things I'm just compelled to do), so I'm moderately proud of myself.

Anyway, at that comics store, I got three comics and two manga-sized trade paperbacks for Thing 1 (the latter to be doled out for car trips, bribes, and whatnot), and, for myself, two comics and a bunch of books:
  • Dork #11, the new Evan Dorkin comic
  • Castle Waiting, Vol. 2 # 2, which will go on the pile under #1, and get read eventually
  • Path of the Assassin, Vol. 2
  • PvP at Large, a collection of the webcomic that was on the sale shelf for $3.75, so I couldn't pass it up
  • Scout, Vol. 1, a collection of the '80s comic that I really hope still holds up (since I loved it then)
  • Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall
  • Nexus Archives, Volumes 3 and 4, which were also on the sale shelf for great prices
  • Spectrum 13, which I had to buy in a store this year (from which you can probably guess that the SFBC won't be selling it -- not my choice, but it happens)

My Favorite Fantasy Short Fiction of 2005

And so we come to Day Four...

Since I worked up all of my lists for World Fantasy purposes, I've divided the world of short fiction into two: short fiction (under 10,000 words) and novella (10,000 to 40,000 words).

This list is much longer than the others, since it includes all of the stuff I liked enough to scribble down on my WFA pad. For that, and other reasons, this list will be the least helpful for those of you trying to figure out what will win. As usual, everything is in alphabetical order by author, and I'll refrain from saying that anything is my favorite. Perhaps you should think of this as a virtual "Best of the Year" collection?
My Top 10:
  1. "Angry Duck," Scott Bradfield (F&SF 7/05) -- I don't think even Gordon Van Gelder, who originally bought it, likes this story as much as I do. But how can you not love the story of a duck professor?
  2. "Is There Life After Rehab?" Pat Cadigan (Sci Fiction 8/17/05) -- Cadigan always has a great line in wry and ironic dialogue, and here she has a great hook to hang them on.
  3. "Chester," David Gerrold (F&SF 6/05) -- My second animal story of the list, after "Angry Duck." Perhaps I'm becoming an old softie? But this is a story that doesn't go the way you expect, which I really appreciated.
  4. "The Cape," Joe Hill (20th Century Ghosts) -- I don't consider "Best New Horror" to be a fantasy story, so I think this was Hill's best work at this length in genre for 2005. And I certainly don't ever want to meet a Hill character, in a darkened alley or a brightly-lit room.
  5. "A Cheap and Frugal Fashion," Heather Martin (Electric Velocipede 8) -- My wife has had tightwad tendencies, off-and-on, so this story really spoke to me, and I particularly loved the everyday-ness of it.
  6. "Go Between," China Mieville (Looking for Jake) -- Somewhat political, as we've come to expect from Mieville, but this also has an existentialism that's not as usual, and put me in mind of Greg Egan stories like "The Infinite Assassin."
  7. "'Discrete Mathematics' by Olaf and Lemeaux, or, The Severed Hand," David Connerley Nahm (Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet #17) -- Another wonderful, wonderful story that you might have to be me to appreciate. Metafictional in the very best ways.
  8. "A Christmas Card," Reggie Oliver (The Complete Symphonies of Adolph Hitler) -- Most of Oliver's collection was pretty much the same kind of thing -- well-done ghost stories in various types of old-fashioned-feeling middle-class British surroundings -- and they were all decent stories, but the repetition hurt them a bit. This one, the last story in the book, headed off in a different direction and was very successful at it. I hope he writes more like this.
  9. "Bottom Feeding," Tim Pratt (Asimov's 8/05) -- For those still counting, this is the third animal story. It also features a great embodied metaphor of the past.
  10. "CommComm," George Saunders (The New Yorker) -- Saunders can be hit and miss for me -- sometimes he's just too arch for my tastes -- but this one is a very solid hit, right in the gut.


  • "The Two Old Women," Kage Baker (Asimov's 2/05) -- But I'm a sucker for Baker's stories, always.
  • "Two Hearts," Peter S. Beagle, (F&SF, Oct/Nov 2005) -- Which does not descend into sentimentality, but remains in the realm of honest sentiment -- quite an achievement for a sequel this long-delayed to a story that beloved.
  • "Follow Me Light," Elizabeth Bear (Sci Fiction 1/12/05) -- Creeped me out a bit, but in a good way.
  • "Magic in a Certain Slant of Light," Deborah Coates (Strange Horizons) -- Which I only fuzzily recall now.
  • "Fancy Bread," Gregory Feeley (TEL: Stories) -- Not really fantasy at all, but still a good story.
  • "Sunbird," Neil Gaiman (Noisy Outlaws, ...) -- A bit obvious, but we'll let him get away with that -- it was a YA anthology, and Gaiman made me enjoy his faux-Lafferty even though I don't have much taste for the original.
  • "Gillian Underground," Michael Jasper, Tim Pratt and Greg van Eekhout (Polyphony 5) -- Minotaurs are always cool.
  • "La Peau Verte," Caitlin R. Kiernan (To Charles Fort, With Love) -- Kiernan's stories in Charles Fort all had a similar structure (mostly that they stopped before they ended), but it probably worked best in this new story.
  • "Monster," Kelly Link (Noisy Outlaws, ....) -- This felt different from the stories in Magic for Beginners, somehow -- more dangerous and uncertain -- so I hope Link is continuing to push her stories into new places.
  • "Master Lao and the Flying Horror,"Lawrence Person (PostScripts Summer 2005) -- Not as serious as most of these stories, but a wonderful piece of swashbucking.
  • "The Other Grace" Holly Phillips (In the Palace of Repose) -- There was a SF story in 2005 with an extremely similar premise (Daryl Gregory's "Second Person, Present Tense"), which I thought was more ambitious and more successful. That has nothing to do with this story, which is a fine piece; it was just the luck of the draw. But the two stories have been rolling around my head together ever since.
  • "Anyway," M. Rickert (Sci Fiction) -- I'm afraid I don't remember what this one was.
  • "Single White Farmhouse," Heather Shaw (Polyphony 5) -- I think of this as a feel-good story, which may say something about me.
  • "Girls and Boys, Come Out to Play," Michael Swanwick (Asimov's 7/05) -- On my toteboard, this counts as SF, which is the only reason it's not in the Top 10. It had enough fantasyesque elements to mention it here, though. One of the best stories of the year, whatever genre it is.

Book-A-Day #100 (10/24): The Beatrice Letters by Lemony Snicket

Huzzah! I'm still hoping to make it to the end of the year, but, if I miss a day now, at least I've hit a big round number.

I've just written an awful lot about Lemony Snicket and "A Series of Unfortunate Events" (to which this book is a pendant), so I won't repeat myself. The Beatrice Letters is a sidebar to the series, published just before The End, though I think it makes more sense read after The End. (Many of the Amazon reviewers didn't pick up on the most important clue -- that not all women named Beatrice are the same person.)

This is apparently crammed with hidden messages, cryptograms, anagrams, and other word games, but I didn't try to decode it; I just read it. (I have a prejudice against books that cannot be enjoyed by just reading them, such as the kind of mysteries you're supposed to solve yourself and the kind of SF novel which requires the reader's flying slipstick to make sense.)

It's a neat physical object -- a two-section file folder with board covers, held together by an elastic band, in which is a poster and a softcover book (with sections that can be punched out to form letters -- not that I think anyone is actually going to do that). And it's an interesting extra bit of SUE-iana, for those who don't want the story to be quite over. But it still doesn't answer all of the lingering questions, of course -- as I said about The End, that's the point.

The Fabulous Book-A-Day Index!
Edited 1/2/07: the huge list of links was getting annoying, and screwing up my Book-A-Day searches, so I've killed them in these posts that had them.

Book-A-Day #99 (10/23): The End by Lemony Snicket

"In any case, this is how all our stories begin, in darkness with our eyes closed, and all our stories end the same way, too, with all of us uttering some last words -- or perhaps someone else's -- before slipping back into darkness as our series of unfortunate events comes to an end." (pp. 319-320)

Everything I said last year about The Penultimate Peril is still true about The End; this is a remarkably dark series of books -- particularly one aimed at 9 to 12 year olds -- saturated with gloom and obsessed with the difficulty, even the impossibility, of doing good in an imperfect world. Yes, intelligent kids of that age often have realized the world is unfair and nasty, but there's a level of world-weariness here that is well beyond that. Young Adult books typically harness that preteen sense that the world is all wrong, and that those readers (the proverbial next generation) are the ones who must make everything right, if they work hard enough. But, in "A Series of Unfortunate Events," all the Baudelaire orphans can hope for is to find a somewhat safe, quiet place away from the world to live in peace -- and even that is a distant hope.

The series has also gotten more and more writerly as it went along. It always had a metafictional element, as "Lemony Snicket," the author and narrator, was a person in the fictional world of the Baudelaires, following behind them to investigate their exploits -- and it gradually became clear that his story was deeply linked to theirs.

In fact, The End (and the last third or so of the series in general) is so writerly that I started comparing "A Series of Unfortunate Events" (SUE) with the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Mr. Harry Potter. The Potter books are for kids who like stories, who love adventure -- they've translated pretty well into movies (questions of length aside), because what is special about them is the story. SUE, on the other hand, turned into an odd but interesting (and financially unsuccessful) movie -- because, I think, the SUE books are more essentially books. This story isn't "unfilmable" (hardly anything really is), but it's a story about the power of words, and the trickiness of words, so the words that tell that story are more important.
Sidebar: there's also the question of orphans. Harry is orphaned off-stage at the beginning of his first adventure -- as are the Baudelaires -- but the similarities end there. Harry's story is about finding a community in which he can be loved and appreciated, where he is important and special. The Baudelaires have only each other; even their friends and associates are forced to leave them by the press of events. They are much more thoroughly orphaned than Harry is, even though there are three of them. And even though more people die in the Potter books. And even though the Potter books seem to be more about death.

Similarly, Voldemort is, I'm afraid, a stock Dark Lord -- with his own style and verve, yes, but still a variation on a character we've seen a million times before, who can always be counted on to monologue long enough for the hero to think up a last-ditch, one-in-a-million plan to save the day. Count Olaf, on the other hand, is simply the worst relative anyone has ever had -- casually cruel, venial, unpleasantly sarcastic, and all-too-much like ourselves for comfort. Olaf is the greater creation, because we can almost like him, because we can almost see ourselves in him.
So the SUE books are something of a test, I think -- the kids who love them are going to be the next generation's serious readers, the writers and editors and critics of 2030, as well as the folks who just read those future books. Good luck to you, kids -- "Snicket" is setting the standards high for you, but I'm sure you can live up to it.

I poked around a bit at Amazon, reading the reader reviews, some of which are a bit obtuse (the ones complaining that not all of the mysteries and questions of the series have been neatly tied up and explained). Just in case any of those people are reading here, I'll try to be more blunt than Daniel Handler was:
  1. Life is unfair.
  2. Nothing ever really ends, and nothing ever really begins; everything is connected to more than you could explain, and there will always be oversimplifications, self-serving explanations, omissions and elisions.
  3. In mediocre fiction, you know the story is over when all of the good people have had a happy ending and all of the bad people have had an unhappy one.
  4. But, in great fiction, you know the story is over when you the reader have been changed by the reading of it.
  5. This story is now over.
The Fabulous Book-A-Day Index!
Edited 1/2/07: the huge list of links was getting annoying, and screwing up my Book-A-Day searches, so I've killed them in these posts that had them.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

My Favorite Fantasy Artists of 2005

Day Three dawns cold and snowy. (Well, I'm sure it did somewhere...)

When I was working on this category for World Fantasy, I sat down with all of the piles of books, magazines and other stuff that I had on hand, and just looked at cover art for a few hours. I've often complained that the Hugo for "Best Artist" seems to go to a good artist for their body of work, but not to the artist who was doing the best work in that specific year (and that bugged me). So I wanted to make sure I had something to point to for each artist I nominated -- at least one work that I could say "this is why I nominated this guy." In fact, a couple of the people I'd been thinking of nominating didn't have any one piece I liked that much, so they didn't make it to my final list.

Anyway, this list is more idiosyncratic than the others, but I hope it will also point to some great art. Like the others, it's in strictly alphabetical order by artist; all these guys did great stuff last year. This list, unlike the others, is linkalicious, so you can see what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Incoming Books: 24 October

I'm on vacation, which always means a trip to waste several hours at the bookstore. And this vacation, that trip was today.

I came home with two books for presents (one of the recipients of which I think reads this, so I'll say no more), one books each for Thing 1 and Thing 2, and twelve for me. (It's good to be the king.)

Of those twelve, there is only one work of fiction I haven't already read (John Banville's The Sea), and about half is comics or cartoons of various kinds. (So, with any luck, I'll be able to read a big chunk of it even before vacation is over.)

Well, gotta go -- I'm home alone with Thing 2, who always wants someone to play with him...

My Favorite Fantasy Collections of 2005

Day Two! Hello, Cleveland -- are you ready to rock?!

Again, these are all in alphabetical order by author, so you can't figure out how I voted for World Fantasy. I only have a Top 10 list here; there are fewer collections published than novels (or, maybe, I'm harder on short fiction). But all these books are well worth reading.

  • I Live With You by Carol Emshwiller
    Emshwiller writes tough, biting stories that don't always make me happy, but which do impress me.
  • 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
    If there were more story collections like this, I might finally stop saying that I hate horror. At least three of the stories in here ("Voluntary Committal," "The Cape," and "Best New Horror") are world-class, and that's flabbergasting for a new writer's first batch of stories.
  • To Charles Fort, With Love by Caitlin R. Kiernan
    Dark, languid stories that always end just before the events that you're expecting and dreading.
  • Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
    I think I like her first collection better -- it's a bit more varied in style -- but Link is a short-fiction powerhouse, who can make the English language do absolutely anything she wants it to.
  • Harrowing the Dragon by Patricia A. McKillip
    McKillip isn't prolific in the shorter lengths -- she's been writing for thirty years, and this medium-sized book is her collected short fiction -- but all of it is choice. She manages to do new things with fairy-tale material that isn't the same as the great mass of "new takes on fairy tales."
  • Looking for Jake by China Mieville
    This is a bit uneven, since it's all of his stories to date, but it's well worth reading, and the best stories here are as good as anyone's.
  • The Complete Symphonies of Adolph Hitler by Reggie Oliver
    Low-key ghost stories in an old-fashioned vein; this is something I would never have heard of without World Fantasy. I'm glad I did: not only is the book itself a beautiful physical object, the stories are little gems, evocative of a world very different from my own.
  • In the Palace of Repose by Holly Phillips
    Many of the books on this list -- many of the books I looked at that aren't on this list -- are full of stories all in the same style and of the same type. Phillips's collection isn't like that; every story here is different, and every story is successful at doing whatever it sets out to do.
  • Strange Itineraries by Tim Powers
    Powers's collected short fiction fills up only a relatively small book; I wish there was more of it. But we take what we can get, and this is worth grabbing with both hands.
  • The Keyhole Opera by Bruce Holland Rogers
    By weight, this is more than half non-genre, but don't let that stop you. Rogers is one of the best short-story writers out there, and this contains an amazing array of stories, flash fiction, and even odder items.
These will be harder to find than the novels (only a couple were published by anything larger than a small press), but I have faith in the ability of you folks to find good writing.

Book-A-Day #98 (10/22): Castle Waiting by Linda Medley

Linda Medley has been writing and drawing this comic (at what seems like ever-more irregular intervals) for the past decade, and its finally been all collected into one small handsome hardcover. (A new series has also just started up, and I'll probably keep buying that, too, even though, as is well known, I hate single issues.)

It's probably the most light-hearted and kid-friendly of all the current batch of revised fairy tale comics; nothing more than mildly unpleasant ever happens, and all of Medley's main characters are deeply and thoroughly nice. (This is not exactly a criticism, but it is an observation.) Castle Waiting is also more loosely based on specific tales than most of the others (like Fables); the castle in question is Sleeping Beauty's, but the main story takes place some unspecified time later. The characters are often fairy-taleish types, but they're not specific people out of older tales (unlike Bill Willingham's Fables, for example).

Medley's art style is nicely illustrative, and looks to be influenced by the late 19th century book illustrators; she uses a lot of lines, but manages to keep her compositions from being too busy. (And, for all of the odd characters -- one of the inhabitants of the castle has a horse's head, and another a stork's -- her style never gets cartoony or exaggerated; it's always rendered in a realistic style.)

This might be a bit too "girly" for many comics readers, but those who enjoy light-hearted fantasy in prose will probably like it in comics form as well.

The Fabulous Book-A-Day Index!
Edited 1/2/07: the huge list of links was getting annoying, and screwing up my Book-A-Day searches, so I've killed them in these posts that had them.

Book-A-Day #97 (10/21): The Chuckling Whatsit by Richard Sala

Sala's comics are all the same sort of thing: pseudo-Gothic adventures with convoluted plots, a huge cast of strange characters (most of whom die before the end), some horror/fantasy elements, and a winking, knowing approach to the whole pulpish apparatus.

This is a good example of the type; I won't try to explain the plot, which is labyrinthine and deliberately over-convoluted, besides mentioning that it's there, and it's typical Sala. Some of his books are a somewhat lighter version of the same thing (like the Peculia books), and those tend to have female main characters -- this one has a young man as its "hero," and it's as dark as can be.

His art is particularly expressive here -- he uses a lot of spot blacks and lines of various width for shading. It's an exceptionally good style for black & white Gothic horror comics.

The Fabulous Book-A-Day Index!
Edited 1/2/07: the huge list of links was getting annoying, and screwing up my Book-A-Day searches, so I've killed them in these posts that had them.

Monday, October 23, 2006

My Favorite Fantasy Novels of 2005

Now that the World Fantasy nominees have been announced and we're counting down to the awards ceremony in a few weeks, I feel like I can list some of the things I liked best from 2005. (Because what's the good of reading a giant pile of stuff if you can't share the ones you think are particularly good?)

I'm on vacation this week, so, each day, I'm going to post one category, since I have lists of stuff to tout. (Nothing against the other categories; they're just less toutable, at least by me.) Since I'm doing these ahead of time, I'm hoping this will help me keep away from the computer (and reading books!) as much as possible this week.

So that no one thinks they can work out anything from this (or any subsequent lists in other categories), I'm listing books alphabetically by the author's name, and I'll refrain from saying anything was "my favorite" or "the best" anything. I also see that I wasn't 100% positive about most of these -- well, let's always remember that the only good definition of a novel is "a long piece of prose with something wrong with it." And a book with only one interesting thing wrong with it is one of the best of the year.

This list is partially based on the one I used for voting for WFA, but partially isn't. It's a list of really good fantasy books that were published in 2005, so, coincidentally, many of them are already in paperback, or should be hitting paperback shortly -- which makes it a great time to check them out.
My Top 10:
  • Vellum, Hal Duncan
    Easily the most ambitious book I've read in five years; Duncan has the new writer's fire, energy, and sense that there's nothing that he can't encompass within a novel. It's not a quick or easy read, but it definitely repays the effort.
  • Lunar Park, Bret Easton Ellis
    A nasty little bit of metafiction from a writer I hadn't read in about two decades (since Less Than Zero, actually). If you've ever wanted to see "Bret Easton Ellis" get his comeuppance, you might like this novel.
  • Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman
    Not deep or profound, perhaps, but this is an exceedingly well-crafted, amazingly enjoyable book without a single wrong note. It reminds me a bit of Wodehouse, and that's high praise.
  • The Narrows, Alexander C. Irvine
    A quietly moving meditation on family and necessity, from a writer who doesn't get nearly enough attention.
  • The House of Storms, Ian R. MacLeod
    A big (maybe too big) pseudo-Victorian novel with several fascinating main characters and an interesting take on industrialized magic.
  • A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin
    I do worry that this series is sneaking out of Martin's grasp, but -- even though I might think some of the sections here are properly sidebars rather than the main story -- everything in this book is mesmerizing and true.
  • Od Magic, Patricia A. McKillip
    I hadn't read McKillip in ages, and was happily surprised at how sprightly her prose was and how lived-in this world feels. It looks like she's been writing a novel this good every year for a couple of decades; where have I been?
  • Kafka On the Shore, Haruki Murakami
    I've been a Murakami fan since I bought his first translated novel (A Wild Sheep Chase) from the SFBC about twenty years ago. His newest novel isn't a genre fantasy, but it brings to life a world of secrets, danger, and the uncanny in a way few can match.
  • Thud!, Terry Pratchett
    The ending is a bit rushed -- that seems to happen irregularly with Discworld books -- but Pratchett's plot is well-yoked in support of his theme, and his story is as smooth as honeyed wine. Pratchett is another writer who quietly puts out one good book after another, but, in his case, he's also building up a world as a mirror to our own, brick by careful brick.
  • Ptolemy's Gate, Jonathan Stroud
    Finale of the "Bartimaeus Trilogy," which is one of the best works of fantasy -- YA or for adults -- of the last few decades; it's really something extraordinary. I'm not entirely sure if Gate stands completely alone -- though I do think it can be read with great effect even without the earlier books -- but there's no reason not to start with The Amulet of Samarkand and read all three: these are books that will stand with the best of fantasy fifty years from now.

Other Notable Novels:
  • The Healer, Michael Blumlein
    It's on this list rather than the main one for two reasons: one, I think it's more SF than fantasy, and two, it's awfully slow-moving. If you have the patience for it, though, it is a deeply moving and very rewarding novel about healing.
  • It's Superman!, Tom DeHaven
    The ending didn't quite work for me, but, up to that, this is a wonderful version of the Superman legend, well-grounded in the real 1930s (though DeHaven's Superman is actually less of a left-winger than the Siegel-Shuster original, which is a bit disappointing).
  • The Girl in the Glass, Jeffrey Ford
    If it had actually been a fantasy novel, this would have easily been in my Top 10. But it's not: it's a detective story (and a damn good one), also set in the 1930s. But it's by a fantasy writer, so I'll list it here.
  • The Stone Ship, Peter Raftos
    An interesting but meandering academic satire, published by a minor Australian press and probably the most obscure thing I'm listing here. It's worth tracking down for fans of Gene Wolfe or James Hynes, and I hope we hear from Raftos again.
  • Snake Agent, Liz Williams
    First in what I think will be a great series about a police detective dealing with a very Confucian supernatural in a near-future Chinese city. The background doesn't come across as "exotic;" it's just the world these characters live in.

If you haven't read all of the above books, you've got some good reading ahead of you. And if you think I've missed the obvious best fantasy novel of 2005, then by all means comment and take me to task.

World Fantasy Survey

John Klima always picks up on my memes, so here it's my turn to do one of his:

1. On a scale from 1 to 10, how excited are you for the convention? (1 being low, as in you'd rather be audited than go to the convention, and 10 being high, as in you're looking forward to the convention more than getting laid)
A solid 7; I don't get 10-excited about anything.

2. Did you buy anything special to bring to the convention?

3. How's the hair?
Today it's horrible; I had a shower in a hotel with their shampoo and it looks like a pile of thatch. But I'm getting it cut on Wednesday, and I always get a flattop, which will cow it into submission for another month or so.

4. Are there any books you're hoping to find at the convention?
That would be telling.

Actually, I don't have a list at the moment, but I do want to eyeball the small press stuff and see what I've missed lately.

5. Are there any authors/editors/artists/etc. that you're hoping to meet at the convention?
Oh, boatloads. Too many to even start naming.

6. Are you scared about going to Texas?
No; my cousin lives in Austin and she's promised to protect me.

6a. If Yes, is it because everything's bigger in Texas?

6b. If No, is it because you're going to Austin?

7. Are you trying to figure out why World Fantasy is in Saratoga next year?
I was born in Albany, so I know well the lures of Saratoga Springs. I just thought they had ended about a century ago. (I'm also happy to have a WFC I can drive to.)

8. On a scale from 1 to 10, how much are you planning on drinking at the convention? (1 being no drinks at all and 10 being slightly more than Nick Cage drinks in Leaving Las Vegas) On the scale of drinking at a SFF convention, I'd be about a 3, but that's the personal equivalent of an 8, since I hardly ever drink outside of conventions these days.

9. What panel(s) are you most excited about seeing at the convention? (panels include any programming at the convention)
I'm afraid I've only looked to see what I was on myself so far; I have no idea what else is going on. I am looking forward to the art show.

10. Are there any nominees that you really want to see win? (for current judges, are there any people you want to makehave judge future World Fantasy Awards?)
I obviously can't comment on the first part...

Jim Minz would make a fine World Fantasy judge, and he'll probably only curse me mildly for bringing up his name. I don't think Diana Gill or China Mieville have done it yet, either. (I'm sure there are people who've been WFA judges more than once, but the "I've done my time" attitude seems to be much more common.)

Is SF Dead or Merely Dying?

This may be scattershot, since I got back from a short family vacation and should be doing about a dozen other things.

There's a pernicious idea going about the SFnal world to the effect that SF was about a third of the mass market in the early '70s and is now about 7-8 percent of that market (which may well be true; the earlier figure doesn't look out of line to me, and the latter is similar to figures I've seen recently), and that therefore SF was doing something right then and wrong now.

This is hogwash.

The "early '70s" date is a crafty one for two reasons: 1) it's just before the first big romance boom, when the mass-market discovered that women will read lots of books if you give them the books they want to read, and 2) it allows one to pretend that the "SF" that was selling then was cutting-edge New Wave metafictions.

Balderdash 1: No, SF is not entirely for teenaged boys (though it certainly was mostly so in the early '70s, and don't forget that), but it's historically been read more by people of the male persuasion. And before romances really took off, paperback publishing was more aimed at the male reader (business travelers, servicemen, and so on). Therefore, obviously, SF had a bigger piece of that pie. And, equally obviously, once women began buying piles of books, the share of the total held by SF went down -- because the total was getting much bigger. Mass market books increased in sales enormously during the '70s and '80s, partially because of and partially driving the chain-store boom.

Balderdash 2: Dhalgren sold a ridiculous number of copies in mass market in that period, for reasons now inexplicable. This is not true for the great mass of similar books. SF at that time had a tendency to sell at roughly the same level, no matter what it was (as long as the hardcovers didn't offend librarians and the paperbacks didn't offend distributors), but the more "cutting-edge" literarily ambitious books were the ones most likely to offend, and so had the most problems and often the lowest sales. What were people really reading in the early '70s? Lots of space opera -- reprints of Doc Smith and Edmond Hamilton, then-modern shelf-filler like the Dumarest of Terra books, humorous versions from Ron Goulart and Harry Harrison. And, of course, masses of Edgar Rice Burroughs books, as well as those of his imitators.

So this is yet another case of taking two perfectly respectable facts and trying to shove them together at relativistic speeds to generate some kind of nuclear reaction. Sadly, all that actually results is a lot of light and heat.

The SF that has always been the most popular is the adventure stuff, and it always will be the most popular. These days, that's the vast sharecropped empires on the one hand and writers like David Weber and Anne McCaffrey on the other. That might not be what SF aficionados like to talk about together, but that's what moves the most books, and what most of the people who read SF read most often. If we try to gerrymander the stuff that people read out of the genre, we'll quickly find ourselves in the position of modern poetry: exactly nowhere.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Incoming Books: 10/20ish

I'm on vacation this week, so original blogging may be light here and at the SFBC. (Though I do have a series of "Best Fantasy Stuff from 2005" that I've been saving up, so those should run here on the weekdays, unless I suddenly decide it's a bad idea.)

Also, I'm running off to Hershey Park with the family in about an hour (in the middle of the school year, with short-attention-span boys, you take short vacations).

But, before I do that, I wanted to state for the record that I brought five books home from work this week: Lemony Snicket's The End (which is going in the car with me), two books of strip cartoons, a guide to old New York points of interest, and Bob Newhart's I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This! (which I've only read a few pages of so far, though I do wonder why he did it now rather then ten years ago, when every comedian in the USA could get a book deal for several million dollars just for making a book editor laugh once).

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Book-A-Day #96 (10/20): Do Butlers Burgle Banks? by P.G. Wodehouse

Like most creative folks, Wodehouse didn't start off at his peak; he had to work his way in, and develop his inimitable style as he went along. And, like any creative types who have the good luck to live a long and productive life, he also fell off a bit towards the end of his life.

Luckily, his books were already light and frivolous to begin with, and he never tampered with his essential style -- so his late books might not be as wonderful as his high period (which I'd say is mostly the '30s and '40s), but they're, at worst, just thinner and sillier variations on the essential Wodehouse themes. (And not embarrassments, as so many late books by literary giants are.)

Do Butlers Burgle Banks? was originally published in 1968, near the end of Wodehouse's long life. (He was born in 1881 and died in 1975.) It has an ending that feels like a hard wordcount has just been hit, and so the story must end right there; the younger Wodehouse would have added an additional complication or three, popped out another ten thousand words or so, and wrapped things up more gracefully. But that's really the only thing "wrong" with this book; it's of a piece with Wodehouse's other adult work -- silly and frivolous, but fun. It doesn't try to be "up to date" for 1968, and so it lands firmly in Wodehouse-land, that timeless England that's one part Edwardian, one part Roaring '20s, and three parts Wodehouse meringue.

I wouldn't start reading Wodehouse here -- he wrote at least two dozen novels in a similar vein that are better than this one, as well as a tall stack of short stories -- but it's a nice piece of Wodehouse for those of us who are already fifty or so books in, and hoping that the vein will continue to yield gold. It does.

The Fabulous Book-A-Day Index!
Edited 1/2/07: the huge list of links was getting annoying, and screwing up my Book-A-Day searches, so I've killed them in these posts that had them.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Quote of the Week

"A louse in the cabbage is better than no meat at all."
- Pennsylvania Dutch proverb

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Book-A-Day #95 (10/19): The Clumsiest People in Europe by Mrs. Favell Lee Mortimer, edited by Todd Pruzan

Mortimer was a 19th century author of books for children (all non-fiction; she seems to have had the deep-dyed Protestant's horror of all things fictitious) who even I find mean-spirited and judgmental. Pruzan is some contemporary guy who found three of Mortimer's old books (all guides to the countries of the world), and edited together the good bits for a modern-day audience. And so The Clumsiest People in Europe exists.

Pruzan says that Mortimer is hilarious, but I think her pronouncements would be better read aloud in company; they can be vaguely funny when read silently, but they're not knock-'em-dead material. It is entertaining, though: she doesn't seem to like anyone, and she casually slanders a good 95% of the world's population as she explains to her young readers that nearly everyone everywhere is dirty, lazy, stupid and shiftless -- oh, and their religion is wrong and/or evil as well. (As is usual, she seems to be even more horrified of Roman Catholics than of Muslims, Hindus, or what she refers to as the devil-worshippers of Sri Lanka.)

Of course, there must be cheap irony when looking at the past (or else we wouldn't do it): she's fervently anti-slavery, and even takes her own England to task for its past role in the trade. This, of course, puts her in what we today would consider the positive, progressive vanguard of public opinion for the early 1850s. And yet, of course, and yet...everything else about her opinions strikes us as just exactly what we'd expect from an insular, misanthropic, and sour 19th century Englishwoman.

I'm not sure precisely who to recommend this book to, though I do think books like this should be read widely -- it reminds us that historical people were real people, not the background to historical movements or cardboard cut-outs marching forward to produce our glorious world. They were all just as weird and conflicted and nasty and friendly and unpleasant as any of us today -- sometimes in exactly the same ways.

There is something to be said for reading primary sources now and then, so, if you don't read this book, try to read something like it in the next few months. Your brain will thank you for it.

The Fabulous Book-A-Day Index!
Edited 1/2/07: the huge list of links was getting annoying, and screwing up my Book-A-Day searches, so I've killed them in these posts that had them.

I Am The Very Model of A Modest Minor Muppet

Today's dumb meme, which I got from someone I'm embarrassed to name, is full of extraneous space. However, I'm not confident enough in my HTML-fu to clean it up, so you'll just have to deal.

Who am I? I'm a muppet you've probably never heard of. I was hoping for Oscar, or, failing that, The Count, but, no, instead I'm...

Guy Smiley
You scored 64% Organization, 41% abstract, and 25% extroverted!
This test measured 3 variables.

First, this test measured how organized you are. Some muppets like Cookie Monster make big messes, while others like Bert are quite anal about things being clean.

Second, this test measured if you prefer a concrete or an abstract viewpoint. For the purposes of this test, concrete people are considered to gravitate more to mathematical and logical approaches, whereas abstract people are more the dreamers and artistic type.

Third, this test measured if you are more of an introvert or an extrovert. By definition, an introvert concentrates more on herself and an extrovert focuses more on others. In this test an introvert was somebody that either tends to spend more time alone or thinks more about herself.

You are mostly organized, both concrete and abstract, and more introverted.

Here is why are you Guy Smiley.

You are both mostly organized. You have a good idea where you put things and you probably keep your place reasonably clean. You aren't totally obsessed with neatness though. Guy Smiley is your average Joe. He'll dress up and look nice for his game show, but he's not a neat freak.

You are both a concrete and abstract thinker. Guy Smiley uses his imagination to come up with ridiculous game shows. However he's concrete enough to stick by his rules and perform his role as host. You know when to be logical at times, but you also aren't afraid to explore your dreams and desires... within limits of course.

You are both introverted. At first glance Guy Smiley may appear to be an extrovert given he hosts a popular show. But in reality he struggles to relate with other people. His prizes tend to just be Guy Smiley merchandise. For whatever reason you are a bit uncomfortable in social settings. You may have one or two people that you are close with. You'd rather do things by yourself and you dislike working in groups where things are always so inefficient.

The other possible characters are
Oscar the Grouch
Kermit the Frog
Cookie Monster
Big Bird
The Count

If you enjoyed this test, I would love the feedback! Also if you want to tell me your favorite Sesame Street character, I can total them up and post them here. Perhaps your choice will win!

My test tracked 3 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:

free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 99% on Organization

free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 99% on concrete-abstra

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Bedtime Reading: 10/19

These are four kids' books I've read at least once this week; it's not the record of any one night, but they're all books I like and could say something about.

  • The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog by Mo Willems -- the thrilling sequel to Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (and which was followed, in its turn, by Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!). Bus is easily the best of the pigeon books, but they're all very fun read-out-loud books, and the two Don't book in particular have a nice call-and-response rhythm to them. (The kids you're reading to are to be encouraged to keep telling the pigeon "no" when he asks to do things.) Hot Dog is a slightly different story, and introduces another main character in "the duckling." (Bus and Stay Up have a bus driver character, but he's really just there at the beginning and end to tell the kids not to let the pigeon do what he wants to do.) Both the pigeon and the duckling have very distinct "voices" on the page, which makes it very easy to give them funny read-out-loud voices (and I think I have); my boys like all of these books quite a bit.
  • Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina -- one of the great classics of the field; if you're younger than about 70, your parents probably read this to you. This is the one about the peddler who carries his caps on his head, but monkeys steal them while he naps, and then copy everything he does. No moral at all, and it's got monkeys! How can you go wrong with monkeys?
  • Wow! America! by Robert Neubecker -- a quite large book with nice art (but not overly-finished-looking; it's a bit cartoony and scrawled, which I like a lot), the sequel to Wow! City! In the first book, the author's young daughter accompanied him on a trip to New York, and was thrilled by various things there -- this time, she and her even younger sister go all across the USA and see lots of sights. This book has a very, very minimal text (the word "Wow" and a word about the particular scenic whatzis on each page), which makes it great for very little kids -- they can figure out what the words are without really being able to read, if necessary. America has two multi-page fold-outs, too, and really uses the large format well to show big panoramas of American stuff. If'n you're not some kind of dirty anti-American Commie agitator, you'll like this.
  • Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems -- yes, another Mo Willems book; I hadn't realized I had two of his when I dragged the pile downstairs to type them into the computer. This is more of a minor work, and is definitely didactic, but it's still a nice story with some cute monster designs. It's about a kid monster who's terrible -- not evil, but terrible at being a monster; no one is scared of him. So he tried to remedy that, and learns a lesson in the end. I can take or leave "lesson" books (it depends on the lesson a lot of the time), but this is a good one.

Book-A-Day #94

#94 is a scratch; I was working on a list of links of all of the earlier Book-A-Day posts, and I realized that I had two #15s, way back when July turned into August. So, #94 will be an anti-leap day, to get us back into synch. I briefly toyed with the idea of going back and re-numbering every post from #15 redux to #93, but finally decided that life is too short.

Also, I had originally planned to save that big list of links for the big Book-A-Day #100, but I changed my mind; I'll just start putting it at the end of all of these. I don't see why not to (yes, it's long, but I tend to write long posts to begin with, and the immense blogroll over on the left makes the page very long no matter what, anyway), and I doubt #100 is going to be particularly special to begin with.

The Fabulous Book-A-Day Index!
Edited 1/2/07: the huge list of links was getting annoying, and screwing up my Book-A-Day searches, so I've killed them in these posts that had them.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Book-A-Day #93 (10/18): Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The only Marquez I've read before this was One Hundred Years of Solitude, in what I puckishly called my "wetback" class at college (the real title was something like "The Latin American Novel in Translation," but I was being aggressively un-PC in those days). Solitude was long and dense and repaid close reading, but it didn't exactly make me eager to run out and read more Marquez.

But, fifteen years later, when a sister club did this very slim book, I grabbed a copy of it. And now, a year after that, I've read it, mostly because it's so short that it was an easy Book-A-Day pick.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores reads like a book from a time capsule (or just from a part of the world feminism hasn't affected much yet); the narrator (an unnamed man in an unnamed city in an unnamed country) has just turned ninety as the book opens and decides to "give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin." So, being as he's a guy who's never not paid for it in his life (and he's proud of that, for Latin American reasons inscrutable to me), he rings up his favorite madam and orders up a fourteen-year-old girl. (She doesn't have a name, either. What's the deal with literary types not wanting to name their characters?)

Yes, yes, I know. I was cringing, too. Does it make it any better if I say that he doesn't actually sleep with her?

When he gets to the brothel, she's asleep (naked, of course), so he just watches her, and muses on various topics of interest to old lechers. And since, by an iron law of the universe, men must leave brothels at dawn, he leaves before she wakes and she is left undeflowered. But, of course, he has somehow along the way found a new zest for life, and...come on, you can fill in the rest, right?

This scenario repeats itself a couple of times -- he never sees her awake -- and our narrator also talks about true love, his long life, and the other sorts of things tedious old men drone on about. (That's not quite fair; Marquez is a pleasing writer, so it's mildly interesting, but the narrator himself is, at the very best, a disgusting old humbug.) He has a mild renaissance in his professional life (as a newspaper columnist), because, Marquez says, he is in love for the first time ever.

In typical literary-novel style, the novel (really a novella) ends just before the real event happens -- I think he either marries the girl, screws her, or keels over dead right after the last page. (But it's hard to be sure which, or if it's actually all three.)

I imagine people who've read more Marquez than I have will get more out of this. For the rest of us, well, Solitude is quite good, and I've heard good things about The General in His Labyrinth and Love in the Time of Cholera. This book's major virtues are that it is short, a pleasant read, and has "Whores" in the title.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Book-A-Day #92 (10/17): "Nice Guys Finish Seventh" by Ralph Keyes

I am one of those editors who are fascinated by language (though, sometimes, in the Jerome K. Jerome "I love to watch other people doing things all day long" sense), so I bought this book on my last major book shopping trip -- hey! it was only five bucks!

I'm glad I did; it's actually a pretty good book (and seems to be well-researched, from a desultory poke through the sources). "Nice Guys Finish Seventh" is essentially a book of misquotes -- quotes run to ground (as much as possible) and attributed, in the correct words, to the correct person.

Keyes is a bit humorless, and an absolute stickler for credit, so even people who put existing thoughts in very different words are lightly worked over. But this is a useful book, and an interesting one, for people who like quotes, and who are intrigued by the idea of tracing a thought back to its originator.

Reading Into the Past: Week of 10/8

This week, I rolled a nine on my dice, and these are the books I read this equivalent week in 1997:
  • John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting (10/1)
    I'm sorry to say that I didn't love this; I thought it was more than a bit opaque, and seemed to wander aimlessly for much of its length. I know it's supposed to be a major modern classic of fantasy, and Ford has just died (much too young), but it just didn't thrill me.
  • Scott Adams, Dilbert: Seven Years of Highly Defective People (10/6)
    A big fat Dilbert collection, on the occasion of the all-important seventh anniversary. Of course, anything Dilbert was like coining money in 1997, so you can't blame them.
  • John Mortimer, Rumpole for the Defense (10/8)
    The fourth book of Rumpole stories, which are all pretty much the same (although the last couple of books are getting more tendentious and political as Mortimer gets older and more crotchety). If you haven't read Rumpole, you probably shouldn't start here -- though you could start with any random Rumpole book, since they're all collections of independent stories.
I read the next two Rumpole books, ...and the Golden Thread and Last Case, the next two days. I'm not sure why I was reading so slowly that week; the next thing that turns up for work is Kathleen Ann Goonan's Mississippi Blues on the 21st, which I have marked as "quit unfinished." (Maybe I bogged down in it.) Or maybe this is when I dug my old Nintendo out of storage and discovered that it still worked -- I did that once or twice, and lost quite a bit of reading time whenever that happened.

And, once again, it's taken more than a week to remember to get back to this. Since it's mostly for my personal amusement, that's just fine.