Thursday, May 31, 2007

News Reports

SFScope has the scoop on the new editor of the Science Fiction Book Club; Rome Quezada is a great guy and a smart editor, so I hope the field will extend him all their support. He has my personal best wishes as well.

Irony Can Be Pretty Ironic Sometimes

Mere moments ago, I got a telemarketing call from a gentleman with a strong (but pleasant) Southern accent, who said he was calling on behalf of BMG Columbia House and wanted to sign me up for some sort of DVD club.

I declined, but it's nice to feel wanted.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Incoming Books: Week of 5/30

OK, so it's not actually the end of the week, but after a book-shopping trip yesterday (to the Montclair Book Center, now and forever one of my favorite stores) and a trip into the city today, the pile is going to fall over if I don't deal with it. So. working down from the top (most recent), the things I have to distract me are:
  • a bound galley of Charles Stross's Halting State
    Incidentally, if there's anyone out there who wants to send me galleys in hopes that I'll talk about them here, please get in touch with me at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net. I can't make any blanket promises that I'll like anything ahead of time, but I do like books, and I definitely like free stuff, so try me! (The preceding offer also applies to purveyors of music, movies, bearer bonds, Krugerrands, large-denomination bills, high-tech gadgets, and quality luncheon meats. Void where prohibited by law.)
  • Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 by David Petersen
  • The Legend of Grimjack: Volume Seven, credited to John Ostrander (writer), Tim Truman (co-creator and new cover), and Tom Mandrake (art)
    These are a bit pricey for what they are, and I do have all of the issues stashed away in boxes, but I keep buying 'em...
  • The Trouble With Girls, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 by Will Jacobs, Gerard Jones, and whoever the artists were (I'm just looking at the the books' spines at the moment)
    Two recent trade paperbacks collecting a very entertaining and not at all politically correct late '80s-early '90s comics series, which was my wife's favorite at the time. (Go figure; she read this, Akira, Sandman, and sometimes Shade the Changing Man.)
  • Your Movie Sucks by Roger Ebert
    A great title for the second collection of Ebert's collected reviews of bad movies. I hope he gets over his current health scare (and I applaud his willingness to not hide his illness), because we need the Movie Answer Man back, and his reviews are always interesting and readable even when I don't care at all about the movies he's writing about.
  • What I Tell You Three Times Is False by "Samuel Holt" (Donald E. Westlake)
    Found it in the MBC's outside shelves for less than a buck -- a wonderful thing, when it's a book I was looking for anyway.
  • Aya by Abouet and Oubrerie
    A graphic novel, translated from the French, about a girl growing up in the '70s in the Ivory Coast. According to the blurbs, it's basically a romantic comedy, and it's gotten good reviews. Drawn & Quarterly hasn't steered me wrong yet, so I'll give it a try.
  • What's So Funny? by Donald E. Westlake
    The new Dortmunder novel. Nuff said.
  • After Dark by Haruki Murakami
    The backlash has officially begun -- this book has gotten mixed reviews, and the "reassessment" of Murakami seems to be in full force -- but I've enjoyed all of his other books, and I expect to like this one. So there. Nyaah.
  • Buddha, Vol. 1 by Osamu Tezuka
    I keep thinking I should read more of this manga stuff, and the books Vertical publishes (in wonderful editions, too) look like they're aimed at adults who both know how to read and like to think. So I hope to get into this or Tezuka's Ode to Kirihito soon.
  • Fresh Air Fiend by Paul Theroux
    A collection of shorter travel essays by the author of several wonderful travel books.
  • A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
    A forty-year-old sexy novel (set in France, of course) that someone talked up in Entertainment Weekly a few weeks back; I suppose I am easily led.
  • Company by Max Barry
    A comedy novel about working for a dysfunctional corporation -- yes, exactly.
  • Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words by Jay Rubin
    Something like a biography or guide to the works of Murakami by one of his major translators.
  • The Contemporary Dictionary of Sexual Euphemisms by Jordan Tate
    From poking through it, I suspect it may be a bit too over-fond of itself, but it looks like an interesting book.
  • My Man Jeeves, Full Moon, Uncle Dynamite, and The Heart of a Goof, all by P.G. Wodehouse
  • Seven Touches of Music by Zoran Zivkovic
    This arrived because of someone's confusion; I was a World Fantasy Award judge last year (reading 2005 books in early 2006), but this was supposed to go to this year's judges (link to the press release on this page). It's a nice-looking book, and I've never read Zivkovic before, but I will hand it over the the correct judges (grudgingly) if I have to.
And that's plenty of books for one week...except that I suspect I'll come home from BEA on Friday with a couple of things in my bag.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

What Antick Musings Is All About

I've decided that I need to post a credo or manifesto here, to explain or explicate what I'm trying to do. (Long-time readers may recall my original mission statement and the somewhat later Credo, and may suspect I am repeating myself. It's possible...)

This is not quite a personal blog -- I'm generally reserved about my personal life (including such minor points as the actual name of The Wife) -- and isn't going to turn into one. I'll blog about things that happen to me, if I think they'll be sufficiently amusing, but the point of this blog is not to share my life with others. (Perhaps this is the point where I should mention one of my all-time favorite songs, "Knowing People" by Matthew Sweet?)

This is also not a political blog. I do have political views, but I'm not convinced that they're particularly interesting, and I believe talking too much about what one believes inevitably turns one into a humorless, self-obsessed crank. I've occasionally wandered over in that direction, but it will stay occasional.

To be even more confusing, this isn't consistently a science fictional blog, either, though it comes much closer there. I do think about SF and Fantasy a lot, so they'll both keep coming up. I've spent the past sixteen years thinking about SFF stories, how they work and don't work, and I doubt I'll stop doing that.

It's neither a book blog nor a movie blog, though those are the sources for most of my posts -- the former much more than the latter.

Frankly, this isn't a single-topic blog, or even one arranged around a central theme. (Despite the fact that all authorities say that single-topic blogs are the way to go, if you want people to read you.)

My aim has been to post at least once day, every day when I have access to the Internet. Most of those posts will be essentially short essays (often badly-formed, unfinished, not-completely-thought-through essays, true, but you get what you pay for) of a thousand or two thousand words, on one of the subjects (see list to the left for a non-exhaustive list) that interest me. So consider me a really odd op-ed writer, and you'll be close. Shorter pieces are interspersed as the mood, and ideas, hit me.

Also, please note that I am inordinately fond of:
  1. ironic understatement
  2. sarcasm
  3. sarcastic understatement
  4. any other kind of understatement I can think of
  5. contrarianism
  6. putting ideas into overly convoluted forms
  7. sentences that are too long to support their own weight
  8. and numbered lists
I think that should cover everything. That's what I do here, and I hope you enjoy it. Tomorrow, with luck, I'll finish typing up what I thought about Pan's Labyrinth (which I finally saw over the past two days.)

Monday, May 28, 2007

Just Read: The Neddiad by Daniel Pinkwater

I finished this book exactly a week ago; I haven't managed to read all of anything since then (though I've read substantial chunks of two novels and pieces of several others, plus about a third of The 2006 What Color is Your Parachute), due to some minor distractions in my life, too trivial to mention.

But I'm hoping that, by writing about The Neddiad, and clearing out the tiny backlog in "Just Read," I'll be able to move forward and get back up on that horse. (Let's see if it works that way.)

This is the new novel by Daniel Pinkwater, one of the living legends of YA fiction (author of the sublime Young Adult Novel, the two great "Snarkout Boys" books, and many more), and, in many ways, it's a standard Pinkwater book: a young hero (we're not told that he's fat...but, then again, we're not told that he isn't, either) travels to interesting places, meets odd people who teach him new and exciting things, and saves the world in a quirky way without there having been a heck of a lot of tension along the way.

This time, it's essentially a historical novel, set soon after WWII in Los Angeles. Pinkwater seems to be turning to fictionalizing his own childhood in recent years; his last novel (The Education of Robert Nifkin, a somewhat more ambitious, though shorter, novel in the form of a college entrance essay), also seemed to be based on his own life. I wonder if that means that he's mostly writing books for people like me now -- readers who discovered him when they were young adults, but aren't young any more. I do hope he is still finding new, young readers, because he's just the kind of writer that smart, oddball kids (and who else is haunting the YA shelves of the libraries of America?) can really need and use.

I wouldn't start reading Pinkwater here; either Robert Nifkin or the books in the two omnibus editions of his work (Five Novels and Four Fantastic Novels) are better introductions. The Neddiad is decent Pinkwater, but it's slightly thin Pinkwater, the Pinkwaterian equivalent of a minor Philip K. Dick novel like We Can Build You -- the motifs are familiar, and fascinating to the initiated, but they're not handled as well as they are in many of his other books. But, for those who've read Pinkwater before, this is a very welcome return to the kind of world and people that we know well and are very happy to see again.

Sunday, May 27, 2007


I've spent the last fifteen years saying that I wasn't a SF fan -- or, at least, saying that I "didn't come up from fandom," or that "I wasn't in fandom before I got a SF job," which is close to the same thing. (And I generally meant it to say "I don't really belong in purely fannish gatherings, since I'm not really One Of You.") But that's not true now, and it hasn't been true for most of that time -- I just didn't realize it.

I owe my blinding realization of the obvious in part to things that Patrick Nielsen Hayden has said about fandom over the years and in part to Kurt Busiek's recent thoughts about the definition of fanfiction on rec.arts.sf.written (in this thread; this post is, I think, Busiek's first major one on the subject). Both have made the reasonable and thoughtful point that one is not essentially a fan, or a pro, or anything, but that one acts as a fan, or a pro, or whatever, in particular situations. So, if one edits professional SF books, or writes them, that activity is that of a pro. But the same person can also be a fan while doing different things. (It's not that complicated; I'm not sure why it took so long for me to apply it to myself.)

The corollary is that being a fan is not a lesser activity than being a pro; it's simply different. Some activities -- the fanfiction discussion on rasfw runs through a lot of them -- blur the line, or can move from one side to the other, but many other activities (filking, cosplay, doing a book-signing tour, working up the P&L on a new book) are clearly one or the other. Some activities (appearing on a panel at a convention, or blogging at great length about SF) can be both simultaneously.

So, while what I said about myself was factually correct, it wasn't completely true. I am a SF fan; I enjoy going to conventions (as much as I can enjoy anything, but that's a separate question), and even try to get to Masquerades most of the time when I do. A huge percentage of my time online for the past decade has been spent arguing (mostly amiably, I hope) about SF and Fantasy, mostly here or at rec.arts.sf.written. I even use fannish terms regularly (and often even correctly!)

So, since I've finally admitted that I am a fan, it's probably overdue for me to gafiate for the first time...

Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Modest Proposal for the Enhancement of the English Language

This was written over a year ago, and never posted due to a massive case of chickening out. But, after this past week, I have nothing to fear from the kind of reaction something as silly as this could get:

I've never meant this to be an "all-ages" blog, but I have previously avoided particularly raunchy issues. (Mostly because I know my mother reads this, and I've never been the type to be comfortable swearing in front of my mom.)

Well, mom (and anyone else easily offended), leave now. Really. You won't want to read this.

I'll leave a little space here, just in case.

It's like spoiler space, only different.

Just enough to get the naughty bits out of sight.

There: that should be enough.

Toni Bentley's book The Surrender is pretty lousy by any yardstick: it's enormously overwritten, and shows a degree of self-involvement unusual even by the rarefied standards of the modern memoir. Her navel-gazing even keeps it from being particularly sexy; she wrote eighty thousand words or so about how much she loves being fucked up the ass, and the reader just wants her to shut up. I read it soon after it was published -- out of pure, unadulterated prurient interest, I admit. (I'm not proud.) But even though it was a short book steeped in sex (and deviant, exciting, forbidden sex at that), it was dull and felt like a waste of time.

(It also made me wonder -- along with all of the other men who secretly read it and will never say so -- if all of the women who enjoy various types of deviant, exciting, forbidden sex are as crazy and self-centered as Bentley. I'm still not sure if that thought is saddening or encouraging: that a relatively sane, normal man has no chance at Forbidden Love or that we're not missing anything because these gals are all batshit insane.)

Anyway, I've never been able to even make a Surrender reference in a joking way at a cocktail party, so reading it has brought no joy or happiness into my life (something I could previously say only about that old loser Henry James). But maybe I've finally been able to change that, and perhaps I can, in a very small way, enrich the English language as I go.

I think Toni Bentley's odd little book can help us create a new word for a common male feeling. I'll explain, but, first, let's set the scene:
Lady or slut, I wear high-heeled mules and keep them on throughout -- or, at least, I try to. The sound of those shoes hitting the floor, pounded off me, one by one, is his sign that things are going well, that now we're rocking, that now she's lost control of her facade, her fears, even her shoes. It's usually when he's deep in my ass that I can't cling any longer to those heels. (The Surrender, p.119)

Horrible, isn't it? And I spared you the three page sequence of Bentley getting ready for Ass-man (I swear to god I am not making that name up) to visit by completely revamping her body, apartment, and life.

Back to the subject at hand: I propose a new transitive verb. To "bentley" someone is to fuck her in the ass until her shoes fall off.

Here's how I expect it to be used:

  • "Damn! See that blonde by the fountain? I gotta bentley that."


  • "John, I'm sorry. I didn't just sleep with your girlfriend. I bentleyed her on your couch."

Or even:

  • "Baby, you're so fine, you deserve a bentley!"
I said "woman" above because I don't expect this will be as useful to the gay community -- men don't typically wear shoes that fall off that way, and are vastly less likely to wear footwear during sex -- but if you're gay and you find this a useful term, more power to you.

It will be most useful before it's in wide use (as with many bits of sexual slang), since it can be used in public sub rosa. So go forth and bentley...or at least talk about it.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Just Read: Alias, Vol. 4 by Bendis & Gaydos

The full title is Alias, Vol. 4: The Secret Origins of Jessica Jones, for those playing at home. And I read it nearly a week ago, but life has been Interesting (in the sense coined by Eric Frank Russell, not some unknown ancient Chinese guy) since then, so only now do I have a moment to spare.

(For those completely lost, but who somehow still care, here are my takes on the first three books in the series: one two three.)

This, sad to say, collects the end of the Alias comics series, in which All Is Revealed, Jessica Jones has several Big Moments, and we see a bunch of people with their underwear on the outside doing the punchy-punchy thing. It's somewhat more conventional Marvel Comics stuff than the first three collections, and Jessica gets to save the day in the end (go her).

There's also, I'm very sorry to say, a bit of metafiction that reads as if Bendis had just re-read Grant Morrison's famous run on Animal Man and decided to nick a few ideas. It barely works at all; it elicited cringes in this reader.

Well, I should probably explain a bit more. The title is "The Secret Origins of Jessica Jones," so we get both the story of How She Got Her Powers (the usual Marvel Universe accident with mutagenic stuff, involving the death of close relatives) and the one about Why She Gave Up Superheroing to be a PI. Naturally, since in the MU superheroing is the only reasonable thing for a person with powers to do, she quit because she was Damaged, and, over the course of the story, she learns, sort of, to heal herself and get back at the man who done her wrong.

There are lots of little things that work in this volume, but the big things mostly didn't work for me. I know the big-league fan types get more emotionally involved when the long-underwear crowd shows up, but it's the opposite for me; they're empty icons rather than human beings to me, and I really don't care what they do or say, since they'll be doing and saying completely different things as soon as the fashion changes. And so, when they show up in force, for me it's just, "Oh, them again." I prefer my small-scale dramas when they stay small-scale, and this one doesn't.

On the other hand, the series does end well, and ends cleanly, which is not common. And the dialogue (except when the Purple Man appears and slimes up the works) is still quite good. This is still much more to my taste than most comics with super-powered people in them, but less so than the first three volumes. You just can't win them all.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Reading Into the Past: Week of 5/20

This week the random number is five, and the books I'm trying to remember are from 2002. The past is safe, right? Well, 2002 was my annus horribilis, and this was the week in question. So let's return to the scene of the crime...
  • Ted Heller, Funnymen (5/10)
    Heller wrote a very good first novel called Slab Rat -- both funny and cutting, like the best satire -- and I was greatly looking forward to this, his second novel. Unfortunately, I was reading it on the day of May 9th, 2002, the day I ended up admitted to Roosevelt Hospital for heart failure. So I ended up mostly reading it in the hospital, and I a) don't thus remember it well and b) associate it with unpleasant things. (I read it, mostly, lying in a hospital bed with an IV drip in my arm and a monitor going off at frightening intervals.) The book itself is, from what I can remember, a good bittersweetly humorous novel in the form of an oral history, about a very Dean-and-Martin-esque comedy team. I suspect it's better than I remember, but I don't expect to ever go back and look. And I don't remember if Heller has written anything since. Sorry, Ted -- you remind me of hospitals and scary machines.
  • John Gregory Betancourt, Roger Zelazny's The Dawn of Amber (5/12)
    The twelfth was a Sunday, and the day before I'd had no luck getting in to see a doctor. (When you check yourself out of a hospital, for whatever reason you do so, the medical profession closes ranks in front of you, and you get the feeling they'd be happier if you'd just die, to prove that they were right. Luckily, I didn't, but no thanks to any doctors.) To take my mind off of the various possibilities -- and because I really needed to just sit quietly until Monday, when I could actually see a doctor, I read this pretty much harmless book. I don't think this is the one where Oberon spends a third of the book trying to get out of bed, which is a pity, since that would be very appropriate.
  • John Bellairs, The House With a Clock in Its Walls (5/12)
    I'd had the vague thought of doing a Bellairs omnibus, but I found this one (and a bit of the next) quite juvenile and not terribly interesting for adults, so I gave up that idea.
  • Matt Wagner & Arnold & Jacob Pander, Grendel: Devil's Legacy (5/13)
    The second Grendel story, which had finally been collected, something like a decade after it was originally published. The Pander brothers had a very garish, almost fashion-magazine-looking style that was very '80s, but it was perfect for this story. (And whatever happened to them, anyway? They did one or two other comics projects after this and then lit off for the territory, as far as I can tell.) You can start reading Grendel here, and this might even be a better beginning than that Batman-as-a-villain creep Hunter Rose, especially if you like your main characters to be sympathetic.
  • P.G. Wodehouse, Joy in the Morning (5/14)
    The other book I had with me in the hospital. It's what got me back to reading Wodehouse, after stalling out a few years before after reading all of the Jeeves in print and bouncing off one or two Blandings books (which I now love -- go figure!) If you ever need a book to take your mind off your own troubles, I highly recommend this one.
  • P. Craig Russell, The Ring of the Nibelung, Volume One (5/15)
    I can only suppose I was wallowing in existential despair at this point. I think I got back to work on this day (Wednesday), since I was now on serious medication designed to make my heart work so hard that it wouldn't have time to think about stopping. (It seemed a bizarre treatment to me then -- if my heart is weak, why is the treatment drugs to slow it down more and thin my blood out to make it harder to pump? -- but I can't argue with the results. Hm. Maybe doctors do know better than me.) Anyway, Russell is one of the mad geniuses of comics, and his particular genius is for adapting operas. The wonderful thing about comics is that you have people like that, who do things that seem really unlikely and weird and yet create wonderful works of art along the way.
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (5/16)
    The heart medication was making me very slow and sleepy, so I was re-reading old books that I knew I would like. And I guess that does mean I'm the kind of guy for whom Slaughterhouse-Five is a comfort read; oh, well, that's just who I am.
  • Lawrence Block, Burglars Can't Be Choosers (5/17)
    The first in a wonderful light mystery series by one of the greats of the genre -- again, more comfort reading. Books like these kept me awake on the bus, when very little else would have. (By the way, did you notice I went on a Book-A-Day kick because of the heart scare? As they say, when something in your life is out of control, sometimes the best bet is to find something you can control, and focus on that for a bit.)
  • John Kovalic, Dork Shadows: The Collected Dork Tower, Volume II (5/18)
    The second collection of the popular gaming comic. I saw it and said "It must be mine!"
  • C.J. Cherryh, Explorer (5/19)
    This is some piece of her atevi series, and, though I've enjoyed reading all of the books, I'm afraid the very similar titles mean that I can't remember which one was which.
  • Anonymous, ed., Dirty Stories, Vol. 2 (5/20)
    The second anthology of pornographic art comics (or perhaps artsy porno comics, depending on how you look at it) was vastly less successful, interesting, and fun than the first. The first Dirty Stories was fun and interesting; this was like wallowing in a sewer. (Am I paraphrasing Voltaire's "Once, a philosopher. Twice, a pervert."?)
  • Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt (5/21)
    This was surprisingly good, for a everything-that-was-left-in-a-dead-man's-desk-drawer book. (Particularly after Mostly Harmless, which was a real disappointment.) Of course, you do need to be a big Adams fan to want to read his collected marginalia and unfinished works, but there were (and still are, I think) a lot of us. I also must have started feeling a bit better about myself to be reading this, because, as a spectre of sudden death from heart troubles, it's hard to beat poor Douglas Adams.
And that's what I was reading the week of my heart failure. And how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

(Just for the record: I rolled the five, and typed in the titles, on Sunday night, though I didn't get to the descriptions until just now.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Troubled Times

Yesterday was my fourteenth wedding anniversary; one week from Monday (on June 4th), it will be my 38th birthday. This should be a happy time for me, but, unfortunately, we can't choose what times will be happy and which not. All we can do is live the lives we are given, and choose to be as happy as we can be.

I choose to be happy; I choose to look forward, not backward.

My thanks to those who have been in touch with me, and my apologies for being so cryptic. For now, though, this is how it has to be.

This post is not a farewell to blogging, but posts here may become very sporadic for an indeterminate time. Again, my apologies.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Breaking News

Those of you particularly plugged into the publishing business may have seen the report mere moments ago that my employer (the as-yet-unnamed merged entity of BMG Columbia House and Bookspan) is laying off 280 people and closing a number of book clubs.

So far, I still have a job and the Science Fiction Book Club is still in operation. No one has told me otherwise, and the SFBC is solidly profitable and has been for as long as I've been with the company.

If the situation changes, I'll probably change this post. (Assuming there's no compelling reason for me not to.)

Updated @ 3:43 PM EDT: I have been conclusively told that I am not being laid off. Others, unfortunately, will be -- including some people very close to me. I think I can be more specific later, but, for now, all I can say is: not me. And the SFBC is continuing.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Just Read: The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

Finally! I was reading this book for exactly two weeks straight, and -- though I do enjoy reading these books -- it's great to finally get to the other end.

The Bonehunters is the sixth book in the "Malazan Book of the Fallen" epic fantasy series, and -- as each book is about the same (huge) length, and each book is a twisty maze of plots, counter-plots, intrigues, and wars spanning several continents -- I'm not even going to attempt to explain what happened before this. (In the tiniest of nutshells: a few thousand years ago, an ill-advised attempt to end a war brought an alien god down to this planet. Said god is not happy, and, at the time these books take place, is trying to upset the entire theological structure of the world. He's more-or-less the "Dark Lord" of the piece...except for the fact that he might not be wrong, exactly. With that as background -- often very, very deep background -- there are a lot of wars and other disagreements going on.) This is the kind of series where each book has about a dozen viewpoint characters, and some of them never even come close to meeting each other.

Anyway, that first cover (above) is what the British hardcover looked like, and the one to your immediate left is the UK paperback, which is the edition I read. (As I mentioned above, it's over 1200 pages long, making it nearly cubical.) The cover with the stagecoach (which I have to admit I'm not sure if I quite like, though I know exactly which scene in the book it's illustrating) is the forthcoming US hardcover. Three radically different looks, actually, and I don't love any of them.

I don't want to talk about the plot of The Bonehunters, because 1) it's not published yet in the US, and b) there's twelve hundred damn pages of plot, so, if I get started, I may never find my way back out again. It's the kind of book where a major siege pops up in the first half, and things go on from there. (The siege chapter, by the way, is over a hundred and thirty pages long, and I suspect it fits the Nebula definition of a novel all by itself. Yes, The Bonehunters is the kind of book that has novel-length chapters. This is not a series for the faint-hearted.)

One interesting thing I noticed while reading this: when I'm working on a book this absurdly long, I'm in no hurry to finish. I guess I feel that as long as I'm not going to be able to get it done quickly (and I can't), there's no use rushing it. So books like this poke along for me -- I read solidly in it every day, but I didn't feel any urgency to get more done every day, or to push to the end more quickly. (For me, reading a book in two days instead of three makes a difference, but twelve instead of fourteen, not so much.)

I've also noticed again and again that what I'm reading affects my mood -- it's one reason I go back to P.G. Wodehouse so regularly, because it cheers me up and sets my temperament back in order. Erikson is pretty gloomy, though not as gloomy as people sometimes say. (There's a fair bit of death in Erikson's books, but his major characters don't die permanently all that often -- oh, they die, often enough, but that's often as a prerequisite for becoming an ascendant, or a god, or something in between.) So I get a bit depressive -- dour and Germanic -- while I'm reading Erikson.

It's a good thing I like his books so much, or else it wouldn't be worth it -- grumping around for two weeks, not reading much of anything else, and lugging a small paperbound brick everywhere. Luckily, they are worth it.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Things That Bug Me About Darkover

Note: these are off the cuff, and probably were addressed thirty years ago in a book I didn't read. They're also probably not fair, given that the important details of the world were thought up by a very young woman more than fifty years ago. (They also only really apply to the far end of the timeline, though the Adventures of the Super-Powerful Romantic Gorgeous Aristocrats Who Can Eat Massive Amounts of Good Food While the Peasants Starve has always made my hand itch for a gun.) And they shouldn't be taken to say anything about my enjoyment of the Darkover novels as books; it's often the things I enjoy reading the most that drive me batty when I start thinking about the world they imply.

Also: I've been poking at this for several months now, and I'm posting it now because it's a Saturday, and I always need to dig up a post for Saturday.

1) Physical: The entire planet seems to be no larger than France. (It's ruled by seven aristocratic families, and the fastest transport and communications, in most circumstances, is by horseback. No one ever has to travel by ship from a far-away area, and no region has a notably different climate. It's the size of a European country, at best.) It also all seems to have precisely the same, bad, climate. Does this mean the entire rest of the planet is uninhabitable to humans for some obscure reason? Or are these people just too dumb to move to the tropics?

This is "it was raining on Beldar 7" territory, in spades.

2) Economic: Even the resources of a rainy, "metal-poor" planet are quite substantial, although -- since the entire population seems to top out at maybe thirty or forty million -- they might not have the warm bodies to exploit much of it.

Presumably the "Terran Federation" is not a monolithic entity, and some individual operations would be willing to work with Darkovrans to exploit some of those resources -- perhaps the ones on the other 99% of the planet that we never see.

And I find it a little hard to believe that no Darkovran learned anything about extra-planetary technology (or, apparently, ever wanted to), so that when "all the Terrans leave" (rolls eyes heavily) no one left on the planet knows how to do anything.

(Really, the entire Darkovran economy is a maze of unexamined assumptions and ridiculous bald assertions.)

To find an in-story reason to explain this, I have to imagine that the Darkovran overlords would much rather see generations of peasants die horribly in various ways than tamper one bit with their precious privileges, which brings me to...

3) Political: The Darkover novels are generally about the kind of people who should, as a class, be stood up against a wall and shot as the first act of the revolution. (Oh, sure, our heroes and heroines are always the good aristocrats, but even in context they're not that wonderful.) They've exploited, marginalized, and outright starved to death their working class for hundreds if not thousands of years by now. The few luxuries available on the planet are all held closely by the ruling aristocrats. They've long ago squandered any possible good will, and their oh-so-special laran powers are used primarily for pointless two-finger exercises in the resource-sucking Towers, or put to bad use in scheming among the aristocrats, or (and this seems to my cynical mind to be the most common option) used to seduce and abandon young farmgirls.

Bluntly: they have no sense that good government is required of them, and they rule a peasant population with an iron fist. What to do?

Shoot 'em. Shoot 'em all, and any vaguely democratic soviet the lower classes put into place has got to be a better solution for the vast majority of the population. We'd also get some kind of industrialization that way, which can't hurt. (What, is it going to ruin the climate? Of Darkover? I laugh hollowly.)

4) The Compact: I'm sure The Bomb lay behind this idea (especially given when Bradley started writing), but it's quite ironic how it works. Historically, distance weapons have acted to allow the weak to confront the powerful on something like an equal basis -- a lord might have a fine horse, expensive armor, a big piece of sharp cutlery and years of experience using it, but he's just as vulnerable to a longbow's shaft as anyone else. On Darkover, though, the total ban on distance weapons is presented as a way to protect the poor innocent peasants from nasty ol' laran weapons...although regular laran is still pretty much only in the hands of the aforementioned inbred decadent aristocrats, who would also have the good swords and horses and guards and so on. But, really, peasants, it's all for your benefit, so just lie back and think of Darkover...

Let's be honest and call a spade a spade: Darkover is a fantasy kingdom with irregular starship service to Earth. That's the only way any of this makes sense. The problem is: although I do like reading fantasy, I keep trying to put Darkover into the "SF" bucket in my head, and it just doesn't fit there. Maybe ranting here will help...

Friday, May 18, 2007

Oprah Watching

I'm not sure if the proper metaphor is the Kremlin or the Vatican, but GalleyCat has been trying to work out, from first principles, what the next selection of the Oprah Book Club will be.

We know that it's a Picador trade paperback retailing for $15, so GalleyCat first thought it might be Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (making two genre titles in a row? the literary world would fall to its knees if that happened...)

Anyway, Chabon has said that it's not him, so speculation has fallen on Trance, I Am Charlotte Simmons, Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex, Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, or perhaps a Walker Percy novel. I dunno what Trance is, but presumably it's by someone named "Sorrento," since GalleyCat quotes him as saying its not his book, either.

Quote of the Week

Sometimes "Quote of the Week" is the accumulated wisdom of the ages, and sometimes it's someone who's put into words a thought that hadn't quite coalesced in my own head. This week, it's the latter:
Meritocratic systems are democratic (since, in theory, everyone gets a place at the starting line) and efficient (since resources are not wasted on the unqualified), but they are huge engines of anxiety. The more purely meritocratic the system -- the more open, the more efficient, the fairer -- the more anxiety it produces, because there is no haven from competition. Your mother can't come over and help you out -- that would be cheating! You're on your own. Everything you do in a meritocratic society is some kind of test, and there is never a final exam. There is only another test.

- Louis Menand, "The Graduates," New Yorker, 5/21/07 issue

ObSF: "Fast Times at Fairmont High," Vernor Vinge

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Movie Log: Music and Lyrics

I felt like seeing a movie with The Wife for once, and she wanted to see Music and Lyrics, and I didn't mind, so that's what we did Sunday night.

I have the feeling that Hugh Grant is incredibly divisive: some people can't stand him at all, and some find him endlessly amusing. Luckily, I'm in the second camp -- he did occasionally get on my nerves back in his stammering days, but I always like to watch him work recently. (And Drew Barrymore is probably similar, though I'm not sure I've seen anything she's made as an adult before this.)

This movie is utter fluff, and, as such, I'm not going to waste any time on it. Either you want to see a Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore movie, with the vast collection of tics and mannerisms that implies, or you don't.

I mostly did, so I had a pleasant time. If you don't, stay far away from this movie. (For what it's worth, Grant is actually believable as an ex-'80s pop star, and Barrymore is only a slightly unlikely neurotic New York wanna-be writer.)

The Question of the Day

So, why do Superman and Batman go back in time to the Revolutionary War, where Superman frames Batman for witchcraft so that he can save him from being possessed by a genie that also knows karate?

Ah, the DC Silver Age, sweet land of insanity.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

SFBC Blog is Back Up

Just as I was preparing to make a bunch of SFBC-Blog-in-Exile posts here, it popped back up. I never get to have any fun.

Look for a flurry of posts there over the next hour, as I try to clean out two days of backlog.

Edit, one hour later: Well, it's not completely back up, since new posts aren't showing yet. I've made eight of them, and I will repost them here as SFBC-Blog-in-Exile if they don't turn up by the end of the working day.

Edit, even later: All of the posts showed up by mid-afternoon, so my two blogs will remain separate and I won't have a Seinfeld-esque problem with my worlds colliding.

A Technical Question I'd Have No Idea How To Research

Is there any particular reason LiveJournal and Bloglines would not be playing nicely with each other these days?

I have a huge list of feeds, which I read through Bloglines, and I'm pretty sure I haven't seen updates from any LJ feeds in several days...possibly much longer than that.

Has LJ taken their toys and gone home (so to speak), or is there some other lurking issue? (Does anyone have any idea?)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Movie Log: Little Children

Well, I saw Little Children just over a week ago, and haven't thought of much to say about it. So I'll just go for the scatter shot thing.

First of all: this is an incredibly faithful translation of a book into a movie. Tom Perrotta, the author of the novel, co-wrote the script, and it shows: the male main character changed names from "Todd" to "Brad," and the ending is somewhat different, but otherwise the movie is very much a condensed version of the book's story. (The movie has essentially three viewpoint characters -- two of which are clearly dominant -- while the book has at least five, all of whom get substantial time.) So we lose some of the secondary-character stuff in the movie, but it still has a much wider cast of characters (whose function isn't simply plot-driven, or to revolve around the main characters) than is usual for a big movie. I do miss some of those secondary characters, but this movie was over two hours long already, so I can see why they were chopped down or eliminated.

Second: this is going to be hard to put in way that doesn't make me sound like some kind of deviant, but...I like the nudity in the sex scenes in this movie. Hollywood films usually show people having sex under huge duvets, or somehow being mostly dressed mere moments after having sex. But this movie is set during a hot summer, and the illicit lovers are naked -- not in a prurient way (we don't see much of anything), but just because that's how real people having sex in the middle of the summer would be. They also seem very sweaty and real; I believed in these two people and their affair.

Kate Winslet was nominated for an Oscar for this, and, not to diminish her performance (which is quite good, but not obviously better than the other actors in the movie), but...I suspect she was nominated because she is naked quite a bit, and her character is specifically described as less attractive than another woman. (That's not the whole reason -- it is a good performance -- but I'm sure there was a "Oh, she's so brave" element there.) Although, speaking personally, you'd have a hard time convincing me there are many things in this world more attractive than Kate Winslet naked.

Interestingly (to me), a book which was clearly set in suburban New Jersey has been moved to somewhere in Massachusetts for the movie. Hmm.

Also possibly Kate Winslet-related: in the book, I felt that the Todd character was clearly the center, but, for the movie, the renamed Brad is slightly moved off to the side, and Winslet's Sarah is the most important character.'s just a really impressive, very good movie about real people living real lives. It is about infidelity and ennui in suburbia, but not in a depressing way, if you can believe that.

Yes, the SFBC Blog Is Down

I'm not sure why, or when, exactly, the SFBC Blog went down (I think it was sometime yesterday in the early afternoon, EDT), and I have no clue when it will be back up.

My fellow Bookspan blogger, Brad Miner (of Compass Points) has been trying to get in touch with our computer folks, with no word so far. Given everything that's happened at this company recently, neither of us is 100% sure our contacts even still work for the company.

The bottom line: I hope and expect that it will be back up, but I don't know when, and the longer it stays down, the less sure I am of anything. I'm as much in the dark as anyone else right now...

Monday, May 14, 2007

Reading Into the Past: Week of 5/6

It's a six this week, so here's the books I was reading around now in 2001:
  • Paul McAuley, The Secret of Life (4/30)
    No memory at all, sorry to say. I have the vague sense that it was near-future, but that's it.
  • Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room (4/30)
    An early book in the wonderfully depressing series.
  • Greg Keyes, Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Edge of Victory: Rebirth (5/1)
    I've agreed not to talk about Star Wars novels for six months, and, to be fair, I have to extend that to include even books that are six years old. So it's not that I can't remember this book (as far as you know), it's that I'm saying "no comment."
  • Thomas McCormack, The Fiction Editor (5/2)
    I think I read this because my boss Ellen Asher worked for McCormack back in the dim dark days of publishing, and because it had gotten decent reviews. I still have it, and it sounded reasonable. (Not having ever edited novel-length fiction for a living -- despite my job title -- I can't be more definitive on its merits.)
  • Brooks Haxton, translator, Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus (5/3)
    There isn't much Heraclitus left, but what there is is here. If you prefer your Eastern-ish philosophy from somewhere closer to Europe (but still awfully far east from where I sit), I recommend this. And, y'know, one of the roots of Western Culture and all that.
  • Julian Barnes, Love, etc. (5/4)
    This is the one that's a sequel to a love-triangle novel from a decade earlier (gets up to look: Talking It Over), in which the love-triangle undergoes further complications. I still think Barnes is at his best when he's being the most formally inventive (like A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters), but this is a fine and closely-observed novel of character.
  • Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf & Cub, Vol. 7: Chains of Death (5/5)
    Seventh in the great samurai-adventure manga series, featuring both lots of torso-chopping and moments of surprising and profound beauty and insight.
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley & Deborah J. Ross, The Fall of Neskaya (5/6)
    Was the the first posthumous Darkover book? I've never quite got the point of Darkover -- it has the kind of social structure that turns me into a left-wing agitator and a technical level that makes me want to pave it over for hydroponics and arcologies -- but obviously it's popular with lots of other people. (Though I think these days they can get real fantasy novels, and don't have to have them with a thin SF glaze, the way MZB set it up in the benighted era of the '50s.)
Yes, I'm more than a week late...but at least I finally got this out.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Sneer

Careful readers of Antick Musings will have noted that I do not think The New York Times's book-reviewing apparatus has any idea of what SFF is or can do, and that everyone involved in the NYTBR seems to be compelled to insult and misread us at every turn.

This week, the Times apparently has noted that J.R.R. Tolkien's The Children of Hurin was an immediate #1 bestseller, that it seems to be serious in intent, and that they have previously failed to cover it. Since their judgment could not possibly be wrong, they decided to poke at it in their Inside the List column this week.

I suspect the intent of that column is to be jocular and familiar, but that really only works for books and genres that the Times understands and has a history of covering well, which is not the case here. The bold-faced subhead (Middle-earth, middlebrow") sets the superior tone.

In the first sentence, the Times writer (Rachel Donadio is credited at the bottom, so I think she wrote all three bits) says that Hurin's strong sales prove "that fans will consume anything -- anything! -- by the Hobbit-meister." I will reply in three ways:
  1. By wondering if the Times is in the habit of calling John Updike "the Rabbit dude" or Philip Roth "the Newark masturbator," and, if not, why "Hobbit-meister" rolled off their collective tongue in this case.
  2. By noting that, actually, Roverandom proved her supposed point, and that the sales actually prove that the really rabid Tolkien fans are not the only ones buying Hurin.
  3. By pointing and laughing.
Next, the Times (oh, let's just say Donadio from here on, to make it cleaner) states that this "prequel springs from stories Tolkien began and set aside as a young man before he turned to 'The Hobbit'." Possible clarifications include:
  • I'm probably a stickler on this point, but I do think "prequel" should be reserved for a work written later but set (within its fictional world) earlier. Admittedly, there is a huge grey area when you get into works written but left unpublished for a long time, like Hurin. But I did want to mention that I wouldn't use "prequel" in this case.
  • "Began and set aside" is technically correct in this instance -- J.R.R. Tolkien began and set aside more versions of his stories than many of us have had hot dinners -- but it gives the wrong impression: Tolkien worked on this story, in one form or another and off and on, for about sixty years.
  • It really sidesteps the essential issue, which is that Tolkien was, even as early as 1918, deliberately trying to create an internally coherent myth-system and imagined mythic history for the British isles. "The Children of Hurin" was one of the important pieces of that myth-system, and, while he may have set this particular story aside now and then, he continued work on some part of the mythos throughout the rest of his life.
After that, Donadio quotes from W.H. Auden's glowing reviews of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King from the NYTBR of olden days -- perhaps feeling a bit guilty for the previous comments. But she returns to form by quoting a Entertainment Weekly pan of Hurin and then archly, look-at-this-ridiculous-person-style, quoting "someone named Jill" who commented on that EW review on the EW site.

One last comment, not aimed at Donadio but at the unnamed EW reviewer: I have no problem with you calling Hurin "swampy" -- I liked it better than that, myself, but it is Tolkien in High Mythic mode, and that can be a bit much for readers used to modern diction -- but referring to such a monument to editing as "unedited" only shows that you didn't read Christopher Tolkien's preface. You may find it boring, dull, or unreadable in whatever way it struck you, but the one thing The Children of Hurin definitely is not is "unedited."

Incoming Books, Week of 5/13

A whole bunch of new stuff in the last week, mostly from my trip to the Strand yesterday:
  • PvP, Vol. 4: Goes Bananas by Scott Kurtz
    I had a list of about thirty books I was specifically looking for at the Strand (and at the top of the list of Murakami's After Dark), most of which I had no luck with. But I was surprised to find this, which wasn't on the list because I had no reason to think they'd have it...
  • How's the Squid? by Jack Ziegler
    Abrams has been doing a series of nice hardcover books of cartoons -- all by a single cartoonist, and mostly on a single subject. At $20 for about 120 cartoons (roughly one a page in a 128-page book), they seem slightly pricey, but the paper is nice, and, if you can find them at discounted prices, they're great. This is one of them: the theme is food.
  • The Diary of a Chambermaid by Octave Mirbeau
    Somewhat famous racy French novel (from 1900) in an eye-catching new edition.
  • Horseradish by Lemony Snicket
    A small, cheap book with one thought in large type on each page. I think those two things even out, so it's about what it should be. I do hope Daniel Handler does something else substantial under the Snicket name in the YA field (or under his own name, for that matter -- though the Snicket voice is distinctive, and I'd like to see more of it).
  • The Trouble With Tom by Paul Collins
    I'd read Collins's Sixpence House about a year and a half ago, and had been looking for more of his books. This book is, if the blurb is accurate, the history of Thomas Paine's remains after he died.
  • The Neddiad by Daniel Pinkwater
    The new YA novel by the master. He writes it, I read it; it's that simple.
  • Edmund and Rosemary Go to Hell by Bruce Eric Kaplan
    A book-length story, in words and pictures, by the New Yorker cartoonist. I hadn't even known this existed before I saw it.
  • HARM by Brian W. Aldiss
    Picked it up as a freebie at the Nebulas.
  • 5 People Who Died During Sex: and 100 Other Terrible Tasteless Lists by Karl Shaw
    Found it on the giveaway shelf at work, and it's a kind of book that's irresistible to me.
  • What Were They Thinking?: Really Bad Ideas Throughout History by Bruce Felton
    Another book I found on the giveaway pile, and something else that I expect will be fun, undemanding reading.
  • Powers, Vol. 6: Sellouts by Brian Michael Bendis
    Got this last week at Free Comic Book Day; I feel it's a good idea to also spend money when I'm getting free comics...
And that's what I got this week. It's not as bad as it looks; most of them are pretty short. Of course, I haven't finished a book in over a week since I'm still in the middle of The Bonehunters, but Real Soon Now I'll be back to reading books that don't take ten days each...

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Difference Between Should and Did

This morning, I should have sat down somewhere quiet and spent a few hours reading The Bonehunters. (Or perhaps gone to some of the Nebula Weekend programming, to learn and/or schmooze.)

But I did get out of the hotel, walk around the point of Manhattan, have breakfast on a park bench, and take the subway uptown to spend two hours poking through the Strand. And I've only just made it back now, in time to drop my bags in my room, peck out a quick blog post (must post every day I have access to a computer, or I'll...actually, nothing will happen, but that's just the way I am), and head back downstairs to meet a friend for a late lunch.

Downside: no work got done. Bad editor.

Upside: I went book-shopping, which is almost like work for an editor. I got seven new books, which I'll probably list tomorrow (along with a couple of other new things already at home), and I'm beginning to get used to the Strand's new layout. (Don't tell me their big remodel was three years ago -- I know that -- but I've only been back twice, including today, since then.)

All in all, pretty good. And the Nebulas are tonight...

Friday, May 11, 2007

Quote of the Week

This week's quote is a long one, from Charles M. Schulz, on January 20th of 1963. (I took it from the 1963-1964 volume of the great Fantagraphics series The Complete Peanuts.) Click on the picture for a larger version.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

More Cover Thoughts

You know, I'm not sure if I should be gratified or annoyed that the moldy old rasfw posts that I toss out on days when I'm too busy or distracted to actually blog are consistently the ones that get noticed, and commented on, in the wider world. Was I that much more interesting in the early '00s? Or did I just choose those reprinted posts very well, proving I'm doubly smart?

I mean, obviously I'm an attention hog -- I'm a blogger, aren't I? it goes with the territory -- so, either way, it's fine. But I do have this lurking tendency to always look for the downside of every situation. (Note: foreshadowing.)

One of the things I bring up every time I get into a discussion about cover art like this (generally on rasfw, or otherwise among fans), is that we're not the typical SFF novel-readers. Anyone who has a list of books that he's looking for, or reads reviews and jots down titles, is a pretty serious reader, and part of a distinct minority of the world of readers. (I mean, we're wonderful people, obviously, and incredibly smart and perspicacious, but there aren't all that many of us, comparatively.)

But the corollary to that is even more important -- if people like us ever became typical in a particular area (and I think we're at, or near, that situation with SFF short fiction), that means that the mass audience has abandoned or been shut out of that area. Sophisticated, list-making, review-reading readers are relatively rare in the larger universe of readers, and if they're a majority in a particular reading category, it's because everyone else is avoiding that thing. (Maybe because they're being shoved away, maybe because they don't even know it's there -- the possible reasons are many and varied.)

That may seem fun and clubby, but it's a recipe for declining interest, sales, and fortunes, which is not something we want for SFF. So when I see someone saying (like Neth did in comments on the last post) that he thinks people aren't buying by cover art anymore, but are being driven by reviews on Amazon, I immediately reach for my revolver assume that means that "real" readers are deserting us in droves. But then I remember that Amazon has only about 10% of the market, and I feel somewhat better.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Judging Books By Their Covers

Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written 5/27/01, and resurrected now because it's a topic of perennial interest:

I can't produce solid figures to prove it, but I can tell you sexy babes do sell books. I've seen it happen -- author X's book XY has a sexy babe, and sells well. Next book, XZ, has a murky scene on the cover, and sells poorly.

In my (admittedly biased, and dependent on my fallible memory) experience, the following things sell books by being in the cover art:

  • dragons (unicorns used to be here, too, but aren't now)
  • spaceships (in a small way)
  • spaceships blowing up or exchanging fire (more so)
  • sexy women (more than anything I can think of)
  • sexy men (slightly in SF/F, hugely in romance)

And I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting. It helps a great deal (mostly for sales of the next book) if the book actually has the cover elements in the text, but it's not absolutely necessary.

If there's a book out there that can be honestly sold by a cover of a mostly-naked woman riding a dragon while a spaceship explodes in the background, I'd love to see it. (I bet I could sell a whole lot of them.)

There are other things that help sell books -- titles are also important, and a book can't beat having been written by someone famous -- but covers are important. And the main job of a cover is to catch the eye of a reader -- not an editor, not a reviewer or critic, not a librarian or bookstore clerk, not even a relatively sophisticated fan, but a garden-variety browser who doesn't have a list of books he's looking for or a catalog of authors in his head. I said this a few days ago in the other cover art thread, but we all here are much more sophisticated and self-conscious about our reading than the proverbial "guy looking to spend his beer money."

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Another Quote from Boomsday

Here we have President Riley Peacham, talking the way a President should (in private), on p.133:
"Gideon, listen to me," the president said, lowering his voice and boring in like a drill. "I am up to my ass in alligators. I got a collapsing economy. Foreign banks are using the U.S. dollar to wipe their asses. I'm fighting four wars--and looks like another on the way, in goddamn Nepal. Someone tell me what in hell we're doing in Nepal. I got melting ice caps on both poles. Florida just lost another two feet of waterfront. Hundred square miles of Mississippi just went under. They just found another tunnel under the Mexican border, this one a four-lane highway, for Christ's sweet sake. I got a drought in the West the Interior Department says is going to make Colorado and Wyoming into another dust bowl. Pakistan and India are going at each other like a couple of wet cats, and don't get me started on that hairball maniac in North Korea. CIA's telling me Israel's preparing to launch nuclear weapons at fucking Mecca. Mecca! Gideon, I don't have time to take on a one-legged senator who says the solution to Social Security is for us to kill ourselves at age seventy. Shit, the way I'm feeling now, I may shoot myself. And I may not wait until I'm seventy."
That's from Boomsday by Christopher Buckley, in which a lot of political types swear like sailors and generally cause trouble -- not unlike the real world.

Now, is that an example of worldbuilding, and, if so, does this book suck because of it? Inquiring minds want to know...

Bedtime Reading: 5/8

It's been a few weeks since I've done this, but here we go again:

Grover and the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum by Norman Stiles and Daniel Wilcox, illustrated by Joe Mathieu

Another one of the great old (1970s) Sesame Street books; it's not quite as much fun as The Monster at the End of This Book (the first taste of metafiction for every preschooler of my generation), but it's still quirky and engaging. This was probably originally meant as an introduction to a lot of basic concepts and names of things for little kids, since Grover wanders through rooms with lots of labeled objects, but what makes it interesting for kids (and more fun for the adult reading it) is all the stuff out of place, and the other various jokes. Plus, you're pretty much required to do a Grover voice while reading it. As far as I know, this is still in print, and has been continuously for thirty years...ah, the power of licensed products!

One Monster After Another by Mercer Mayer

Another classic Mayer book -- "classic" being, again, the 1970s. (Not just because that was my heyday as a kid -- though I'm sure that's part of it -- but also because Mayer was doing a lot of neat books like this during that time.) Mayer has a great illustrative style, a bit cartoony with lots of details and wonderful expressiveness to his character's gestures. This one is a "one darn thing after another" book, in which one girl's letter to her friend is repeatedly hijacked by odder and odder creatures. Monster doesn't have the density of background details that some of Mayer's books of this era do -- there's not even a single reference to "Island Joe" -- but the strange names for the monsters make up for that. (This book also gives me the chance to say "official" a lot -- it's used quite a bit near the end, and I load that up as an adjective to every noun until Thing 2 complains -- which is entertaining for me, at least.) The edition I have is a recent reprint (McGraw-Hill 2003), so it should be pretty easy to find.

Good Night, Mr. Night by Dan Yaccarino

If anyone out there is looking for a new quiet "go to sleep" book, I'd greatly recommend this one. I love Yaccarino's art, with its big slabs of solid, painterly color, and I've liked all of his books that I've seen. (He's also the guy behind the short-lived Nickelodeon show Oswald, which some may remember -- that was a book first, and that one's a great read-aloud as well.)

Good Night is about Mr. Night, who wakes up when the sun sets -- he's the night sky personified. The short text is about a kid settling down to sleep, and talking about how Mr. Night settles the world down to sleep every night. At the end, the kid wakes up in the morning...which is when Mr. Night goes to sleep. It's sweet and clever and a great way to end a day. (I have it in paperback from Harcourt; I believe it's still in print.)

Grandpa Gazillion's Number Yard by Laurie Keller

I believe I've mentioned Laurie Keller before; her previous book, Arnie the Doughnut, is one of my kids' all-time favorites (and one which I don't mind reading every so often, even though doing it right takes a good half-hour). She's also done The Scrambled States of America, a great book about the inter-personal conflicts and lives of the US states, and the only slightly less cool Open Wide: Tooth School Inside (about teeth going to school).

It's with purest admiration that I say that Keller is a world-class goofball;her art is very exaggerated and cartoony, and both writing and art will take detours at any time to make dumb (but very funny) jokes.

Grandpa was probably sold to its publisher as a generally educational book about the numbers one to twenty, but it's awfully goofy (again, I mean that as a high compliment). The titular Grandpa runs a business where he sells numbers (large, colorfully-colored numbers), and, through the course of the book, he expounds on their various uses. For example, a 5 can be used as a snorkel if you're buried under a mound of mashed potatoes, and a 16 makes a great phone to tell a giant meatball that he's just sat on you.

As I said: totally goofball, totally enjoyable.

I'm not sure if this is out in paperback yet; we bought it in hardcover because we're such fans of Keller's stuff -- it was published in 2005 by Holt.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Just Read: Boomsday by Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley is his generation's Evelyn Waugh: part of the power establishment and yet able to look at it with a ferociously jaundiced eye, stabbing it not only where it needs to be stabbed, but in the most telling and painful spots. Thank You For Smoking is still the quintessential modern political satire, and several of his other books -- The White House Mess, No Way To Treat a First Lady, and Little Green Men -- are nearly as good. (Though I do have to admit that Buckley's immediately previous novel, Florence of Arabia, suffered a bit from over-earnestness and ending trouble.)

So I was expecting a lot when I started reading Boomsday, and I generally got it -- at least at first.

Boomsday starts strong, and, but for two problems, would rank with Buckley's best. (I'll praise it first, and then get back to those two problems). Buckley either knows exactly how people with power act and think (with slight allowances for comedic exaggeration), or can fake it so well that it makes no difference. I find his dialogue and narration very funny, though I've seen that some exceptionally humorless left-wing types (particularly those who cannot countenance the idea that democratic government is inevitably a snake-pit of bureaucratic infighting and factionalism) don't find him funny at all. I prefer to think of this as a litmus test of readers, rather than saying anything about Buckley.

In common with most of Buckley's novels, this could be characterized as science fiction -- it's sent in the very near future -- but generally isn't. (Since I like Buckley's work, and am officially a SF editor, I tend to be expansive in this case.) In Boomsday, we start off in late 2011, as the next Presidential election campaign is getting underway, and the economy is heading rapidly downhill, in large part because the Baby Boom generation is about to start retiring. One young woman takes exception to the ever-increasing taxes being put on her generation to fund the government trough for the previous generations, and starts something of a tax revolt, which then gets even weirder.

The characterizations are generally good (with one caveat, below), the plot moves along well into interesting thickets of complication, and it's very funny, and very true, a lot of the time. OK, enough praise.

The first problem: Buckley has intermittent trouble writing a believable young woman, which is a problem, since our central figure, Cassandra, is a young woman, and that's very important to her character. In particular, her sex life only suddenly appears when necessary for the plot -- she's otherwise both utterly gorgeous and utterly virginal, like a middle-aged man's own conception of his daughter -- and then is discreetly kept off-screen, when it should provide Buckley great opportunities for both comedy and character work. She also has no contacts with people her own age at any point during the book; her best friend and only confidante is her Boomer-aged boss. She's believable as a person, and a pleasure to read about, but she really doesn't feel like a 29-year-old woman.

The second issue: Boomsday is in two parts, more or less: the first 300 pages is essentially the beginning three-quarters of a great 400-page novel, and the last eighteen pages is fun but very messy, in which everything stops in a great hurry, as if to meet a word count or a deadline. Buckley abandons entirely several plot threads in his haste to end the book, and the ending doesn't have much impact. Maybe the point was supposed to be that things always will go on as usual, but it doesn't come across that way: it feels as if a longer book was truncated for some reason.

It's still well worth reading, but I think I'd recommend anyone who hasn't read Buckley yet to start with Thank You For Smoking or Little Green Men.