Thursday, December 31, 2009

Closing With Three Jacks

If I'd set this post to appear early tomorrow morning, I could have called it opening with three jacks, which would make slightly more sense...but I've got the usual year-end stuff already queued up, so this post will be the last one for 2009 instead.

I recently caught up with the last three collections of the DC/Vertigo Jack of Fables series -- written by Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges, with art primarily by Russ Braun and Tony Akins (plus various inkers and others) -- even though I'd had mixed feelings about the first three volumes. The main problem with the series is that the main character -- the guy who was "Jack" in every traditional story you can think of, one of the "fables"from various parallel worlds -- is a grade-A jerk, as self-centered as it is possible for a human being to be, and not half as smart or savvy as he thinks he is. By definition, he doesn't learn from his mistakes, and is entirely a one-note character. One-note characters can work just fine as part of a larger cast, as Jack did in the parent Fables series, but they're more troublesome at the center of their own stories.

What Willingham and Sturges did to get around that problem was to quickly build a new cast around Jack, primarily from the inmates and warders of the Golden Boughs Retirement Village (created by the fiendish Mr. Revise to leech magical powers from fables and thus slowly turn the world utterly mundane). Thus Jack is the title character, and the central character, but he doesn't have to carry the entire story himself.

And let me digress briefly to poke at Willingham and Sturges's mythology here. Besides "mundanes" -- people like you and me, who are real and have normal lives -- and fables, there are also "literals," who are the personifications of literary techniques. Or something like that; it's not quite clear. To make it more confusing, all of the literals we've met so far are part of one family, which implies that literals are all one family. The oldest member of the family we've met so far -- and this doesn't make much sense, either -- is Gary, the Pathetic Fallacy, who has at least one son, Kevin Thorne. Kevin is possibly the author of all of the fables, or at least of lots of them -- and it's not exactly clear if all of the fables needed Kevin, or someone like him, to write them in the first place. Kevin in turn has at least two sons: Mr. Revise and The Bookburner. There's no explanation as to why the Pathetic Fallacy came first, or why a guy named Kevin would name his sons Revise and Bookburner. There may be a literal world, as there are fable worlds and the mundane world, but we haven't seen that -- and it's hard to picture how it would work, either. If you ask me, there's a definite feeling that W&S are throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, and that there's no long-term plan in place.... 

In Vol. 4: Americana, two different groups -- on the one hand, Jack, Gary, Jack's Indian sidekick Raven, and a reconstituted Humpty Dumpty; and on the other, Hillary Page (one of Revise's three beautiful librarian daughters), a shrunken Paul Bunyan and his inevitable blue ox Babe -- hop a train to Americana, the land of American Fables, in search of the lost golden city of Cibola. There they discover the Bookburner, who has a somewhat different approach to librarianship than Hillary does, and find themselves having to team up (and incidentally betraying each other in various permutations, since that's what happens when you team up with your enemies).

Then comes Vol. 5: Turning Pages, which has two three-issue stories -- one a flashback to 1883, with Jack as a pistol-packing outlaw pursued by Bigby Wolf from the main Fables series, and the other split evenly between the history of the three Page sisters (including repeatedly confusing information about who is and is not the father of which of them) and the lead-up to the big confrontation between brothers Revise and Bookburner.

And then, in Vol. 6: The Big Book of War, Bookburner's forces arrive at Golden Boughs and besiege it, with Jack and his companions on the inside. And so there's a big long fight, with escalating nasties on both sides, until Revise is forced to go against his entire purpose (as of course we all expected). In the end, there's not exactly a winner of the battle, but Jack does walk away (with the usual entourage), which counts as a win for him.

I expect the series is heading off in a different direction at this point, since Revise (the original primary villain) and Bookburner (his replacement in these volumes) are both thoroughly neutralized. Presumably Kevin is the new Big Bad, though it may be difficult to show the fiendish trouble caused by a guy named Kevin with a quill pen. And perhaps W&S will explain more about Literals -- or keep throwing more of them in, willy-nilly, and hope that each reader works out a plausible explanation individually.


Well, I've nearly made my major goal for the end of the year, which was to catch up entirely on my book review posts. As I type this now, the pile of books I needed to write about has shrunk from nineteen a few days ago to four (not including a Manga Friday column for tomorrow I need to finish up and post, and one last review post here for the night and year). I expect to deal with those four over the weekend, and roll into the first working week of 2010 with a clean slate.

Along the way, I realized something -- the books I was putting aside to write about later were primarily genre (SF and Fantasy, specifically), which one would think I'd be more comfortable reviewing, since I spent sixteen years editing the damn things. But the best is always the enemy of the good; I wanted to do those reviews "right," so I'd regularly put them off until I had more time and energy to put into them. And. inevitably, there was never as much time and energy as I wanted, so they sat, unwritten, for months.

The new plan for Antick Musings -- assuming that I do want to continue to write about everything I read, which I think I still do (it's a useful exercise for me, if nothing else) -- is to plan to finish off everything in the month I read it. If it doesn't get written about at length by the last day of the month, it'll get a paragraph in the "Books Read in {thismonth}" post, and that will be the end of it. No more piling up books for six or nine months and expecting to do something about them later; that clearly didn't work.

More happily, I note that, with this and the next post, I'll have 88 posts this month. That's the highest for this year, and only behind August of 2008 (no clue what happened then) and June of 2007 (during Blog in Exile). I'm ending this year 10 posts behind the 2008 pace, which is close enough to even for me -- I don't want to get stuck on an ever-increasing treadmill, even if that's my natural tendency.

And maybe this will mean that, at this time next year, I'll be able to sit somewhere warm and read, instead of sitting somewhere cold and typing. It's a goal to shoot for, at least.

Have a happy 2010, everyone.

Template by Matthew Hughes

In a better world, Template would have been the immediate follow-up to Hughes's engaging novel Black Brillion, which became a solid hit and generated a serious fan following for Hughes' witty and quietly cutting tales of the far future of the Archonate. Sadly, this is not that world, and none of those things happened -- Black Brillion was a wonderful book that readers inexplicably avoided, and Template sat on the shelf for a few years, only to emerge from a small British house, PS Publishing, in this handsome but limited edition last year. (A trade paperback, which I hope will reach more people, will be published by Paizo sometime in 2010.)

Hughes's work often tends towards the Vancean, and Template is firmly in that mode; it's set so far in the future that the planet called "Old Earth" may not even be the one we're on now, and in a society where humanity has spread throughout an entire arm of the Milky Way. It's a slightly old-fashioned future, pre-Sterling and Vinge, in that all of those humans are apparently physically identical to humans today, and their divergences -- which are many, and one of the underlying themes of Template -- are entirely cultural, not physical.

Conn Labro is a gladiator of sorts, a master of physical combat on the world Thrais, where every contact among humans is governed by pure commerce. But he will find himself traveling through many different worlds of The Spray of humanity -- all the way to Old Earth, with stops along the way -- and find that each world has a very different set of expected behaviors. Template is, on one level, the story of Conn's adventures as he investigates the death of Hallis Tharp, an old man with whom he used to play the game of paduay, and those adventures are colorful and exciting. But Template is also the story of how Conn learns to appreciate and live with those very different cultures -- including, or especially, that of the young woman Jenore Mordene, originally of Old Earth herself.

Hughes's writing is both supple and subtle here; his dialogue is allusive and amusing in that dry, understated style that he shares with Vance, and his descriptions are precise and specific. Template isn't a long novel -- it tops out at 250 pages -- but it's full of wonders and thrills, deeply amusing and thoughtful in turns, a fine mature work from one of the best writers that SFF has today. I can only hope that his audience will increase; we need more Hughes novels, and a world with a legion of Hughes fans would be a wonderful thing.

Movie Log: Julie & Julia

Julie & Julia is a movie that takes two stories in which not all that much happens -- Julia Child learns to cook French food at Le Cordon Bleu, and then works for a decade on a cookbook; Julie Powell spends a year cooking all the recipes from that book and writing about it on a blog -- and intertwines them to make them both feel more important and interesting than they would have separately. It is true, as nearly all of the reviews have said, that Meryl Streep's Julia is more fun than Amy Adams's Julie, but that's mostly the nature of their stories -- Julia might have been "servantless," but she was pretty well coddled by life, and Julie wasn't.

Director Nora Ephron also keeps Julia's world sunnier than Julie's, and Julia's setbacks -- an unpleasant Frenchwoman who runs Cordon Bleu, her husband's interrogation by humorless Republican commie-hunters in the mid-'50s -- are smaller and less momentous than Julie's. And let's face it: Julia is an American in Paris right after the war, riding high on the almighty dollar, living in splendid, huge, apartments, married to a loving man whose embassy work is clearly not too taxing, and studying something she deeply loves. Julie is working for a government bureaucracy, talking to 9/11 victims, and trying to recreate Julia's recipes in the small kitchen of a small apartment in dumpy Long Island City, with a husband who works more than Julia's and isn't portrayed as the saint Paul Child is.

Julia Child is also a larger-than-life figure in a way that Julie Powell just can't be -- and Streep does capture Child's oddly booming voice and twitchy mannerisms, inhabiting the part and expressing the deep joy Child always seemed to have for food and everything else that came her way. We viewers don't have a mental picture of Julie Powell in the same way, so Amy Adams has to work harder to build her character -- though she does very well herself. (And Adams is such a cutie -- perhaps even more now, when she's playing an ordinary person, and not using one of her high, twittery voices -- that we instinctively feel for her.)

Julie & Julia is a sunny movie about the pleasures of doing something right, about making food that people will appreciate, about damning the torpedoes and using real butter. Luckily, I saw it after having a big meal (Mexican, not French, though the effect is similar), so it didn't make me ravenously hungry. But I could easily see how it could: this would be an excellent pre-dinner movie.

Half a Crown by Jo Walton

It could be said that Walton writes anti-genre novels: her characters tend to be completely wrapped up in their time and place, not necessarily ordinary, but deeply typical and representative. They rarely even dream of smashing everything and lighting out for the territory, as the typical pulp hero would do instinctively; they're settled and reserved, like good Britons or Canadians.

There's even a point, late in this book, where a top government official, in charge of a vast apparatus of secret policemen (and an only slightly less-vast apparatus even more secret) responds to a punishing personal attack on his power from another, rival government official by running and hiding. A Walton hero, unlike most real-world top leaders, doesn't even think about turning his teeth on his attackers; the default assumption is that a Walton hero won't have any teeth worth using.

This reader had a strong urge to quote The Untouchables at that character -- "They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue." -- and not see him abandon his power. But Walton isn't really interested in characters who have power, and so she maneuvers the few who actually do into situations where she can keep them impotent and oppressed.

Half a Crown is the third in the Small Change Sequence, after Farthing and Ha'penny -- it's not precisely a trilogy, but it is a series of three novels set in the same world and with one major continuing viewpoint character. It's set several years after the first two books, in 1960, and has a somewhat more hopeful set of possibilities than the earlier books did. That's not to say that Half a Crown is sweetness and light; this is an unpleasant alternate history -- in which Hess's flight to Scotland in 1941 led to a brokered peace, a fascist UK, and a Europe solidly in Nazi hands -- and the hopefulness mostly lies in this world possibly having the opportunity to get to something like real democracy and honest civil society.

As usual, the viewpoints alternate, between the third-person Peter Carmichael chapters and those in first-person, from a young woman -- this time Carmichael's "niece," Elvira. The two threads intertwine earlier in this book than in the previous two, and have stronger cross-connections. As to the plot: well, Elvira is about to debut, and Carmichael is head of the Watch, Britain's secret police. Hitler is coming back to London, for a "peace conference," as is the ex-King, the Duke of Windsor, whose followers think the current government is not nearly cruel and tough enough. Protests are beginning to rise, on both sides.

Walton started this series with clear and definite parallels to the modern day; those have become less important in the later novels, though this one has the whiff of 1989 about it. (Better that than 1956, or 1968.) And her fascist England is still horribly plausible, taking the worst tendencies of the British people and using them as the basis of her world. Some alternate histories feel more like wargaming, or special pleading -- this world is a horrible one that we narrowly avoided, and Walton's story gains strength from that.

I wouldn't start here as a new reader; drop back to Farthing if you haven't read any of these books yet. But they're well worth reading; these three novels are both fine crime novels and compelling evocations of the kind of world that we all must work to keep as far away as possible.

Another Excuse for Me To Say "Widget" A Few Times

Amazon has woken up after their long post-Christmas nap, yawning and stretching and scratching their collective belly. The warehouse, frankly, is a shambles, full of wrapping-paper ends, little bits of saved tape on every exposed surface, and half-packed boxes. Sure, inventory is down after the great holiday rush, but there's still masses of returned products that work perfectly well, if they can just figure out a way to sell them.

"Man," thinks Amazon to itself, "I've got to make a widget to move some of this stuff."

And so it did, and that widget, through the magic of the Internet, will appear immediately below:

Who knows what wonders will appear in the wondrous widget? Not I....

Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley

About two years ago, I reviewed Buckley's previous satirical Washington novel, Boomsday, and I'll direct interested parties there for a more general discussion of Buckley's work and strengths. (Short version: very funny, very good at insider Washington, not always great with women. Thank You for Smoking is best.)

Supreme Courtship was his new novel last year, about what happens when an unpopular president nominates a TV judge for the Supreme Court after his first two -- highly qualified -- nominees are shot down for spiteful reasons by the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee (who wants the seat himself).

I read it quickly and with great appreciation back in April -- Buckley is both funny and witty, with a deep knowledge of the workings of Washington specifically and power generally -- but neglected to write anything about it here at the time. This would have been a great book to read during the Sotomayor hearings, but, sadly, I missed those. On the other hand, the Court is pretty old right now -- there might be another opening soon. In any case, this is a solidly funny novel about Washington by a man who knows how to do that very well. And Buckley also has the advantage of not having overly obvious partisan axes to grind; this isn't a novel set up to be against "those guys," unless by "those guys" you mean "the idiots running the country."

Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand by Carrie Vaughn

The fifth book in the series without a cutesy name -- and I do appreciate that -- sees Kitty Norville and her fiancee/lawyer/co-alpha werewolf Ben O'Farrell head to Las Vegas from their Denver home with the intention of getting quietly married and doing a one-off filmed-for-TV version of Kitty's radio show. But we all know about intentions, right? (The very next book in the series, published a mere month after this one, is even titled Kitty Raises Hell.)

This is another one of those pesky books I read some time ago -- this one was back in April -- and stuck into a pile to write about "later." Well, it's later now, but I don't remember the plot well enough to do it justice. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though I haven't gotten to Kitty Raises Hell yet (and I see that there's another book, Kitty's House of Horrors, publishing on Monday). But it's a series book, and it has the usual pleasures of a series -- returning to the same characters and seeing the world develop in interesting ways. Vaughn also has a remarkable fondness (within the realm of urban fantasy) for the rule of law and for legitimate authority, which I feel should be encouraged -- there are too many vigilante vampires and vampire-slayers already. Kitty, at least, doesn't see her role in life as running around slaughtering the people she disagrees with, which is a refreshing change.

Turn Coat by Jim Butcher

Turn Coat is the eleventh book in "the Dresden Files," about Chicago's only consulting wizard. Well, actually, he hasn't actually consulted -- or done anything likely to bring in any income -- for several books now. The Dresden books are still exceptionally enjoyable, but I'm beginning to get worried at how much they're showing Fantasy Power Escalation Syndrome: every book has to top the last, with bigger threats, greater dangers, and ever more awesome magics. One of the advantages urban fantasy -- fantasy novels set in the modern world and featuring characters we could expect to meet in our lives -- has over the traditional epic style is in their essential element of the everyday and mundane, and the Dresden books haven't rested anywhere near the mundane for several volumes now. I'll say again that I really think it's time for Dresden to have an adventure that doesn't involve the fate of wizardry's ruling White Council, or the super-powerful heads of the various vampire clans, or the Queens of Faerie, or any of their ilk. If all you ever do is save the world, it starts to get tedious after a while.

This time out, Harry isn't precisely "saving the world," but he is -- like most of the first half-dozen or so books -- intensely focused on saving himself from the dangers of his own side (the magical White Council), and, incidentally, in finding and eliminating a traitor on that Council. There's the usual cast of characters, and Harry does his not-really-swearing thing often enough that it grates (is it at all possible that a modern man would say "Hell's bells," explosively, in a moment of anger or frustration?), and Butcher pulls out the magical pyrotechnics several times to great effect.

(If I'm being vague, it's because I read Turn Coat about eight months ago, and neglected to write about it until now, in my year-end frenzy of catching up.)

Turn Coat has all of the virtues of a good series novel: the important supporting cast returns, and they show signs of continuing to change slightly, instead of staying static. Dresden himself is growing in skill and responsibility (though, of course, that also becomes something to watch out for; in a series like this, he could easily become Jehovah-level in another few books). And there is an overall plot that continues across the books, on top of the specific plot in this book. If you like magical adventures with a mostly-shiny hero in the modern world, the Dresden Files are about as good as they come.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

It Seemed the Logical Thing to Do at the Time

Hey, did I happen to mention that I reviewed a weighty tome called Logicomix -- by the keyboard-straining team of Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos, and Annie Di Donna --on Monday for ComicMix?

Hm. I thought not. Well, consider it done now.

I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President by Josh Lieb

Television and YA books both have to negotiate the dangers of The Lesson; both forms have a strong tropism for morality tales, but that has to be fought as much as possible to avoid becoming something dull and treacly and Very Special. Josh Lieb is a TV writer/producer who's just published his first novel for young readers -- which means either he's firmly experienced with fighting off those urges, or that he has twice as much pushing him to make I Am A Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President into the world's edgiest Afterschool Special. Luckily, Lieb is more interested in being smart and funny -- or perhaps in combining both of those things to be a smart-ass -- than he is in being uplifting.

The genius of the title is one Oliver Watson, secretly the third-richest man in the world (behind his lackey, Lionel Sheldrake, the patrician-looking face on Watson's empire), a super-genius, and a fiend bent on world domination (inasmuch as he isn't already dominating the world). But the public face of Oliver Watson is a chubby, dull, harmless seventh grader in Omaha, Nebraska's Gale Sayers Middle School -- and that's just how he wants it; to be considered ordinary and harmless as long as he's a minor.

Through an unlikely series of events -- driven by Tatiana Lopez, the Meanest Girl in School, and by Oliver's burning desire to show up his "Daddy," the manager of the local public TV station (this is the Lesson, I'm afraid: that even a world-dominating genius just wants to be loved and respected by his father) -- Oliver decides to run for class president. And Oliver Watson doesn't do anything by halves; if he's going to run for class president, he'll win, and he'll crush the opposition.

Oliver's voice drives this novel -- drives it like a ten-ton semi-truck of sarcasm and bile, highballing down one of those poker-straight Nebraska highways way above the speed limit. There's not a whole lot of plot, and even less conflict, since Oliver can steamroller just about anything and get whatever he wants in the world -- so the real question of Genius of Unspeakable Evil is about what Oliver does want, and how much the things he wants are in conflict with each other. Luckily, Lieb stays in control of Oliver's voice the whole time, muscling it straight down that highway to the inevitable conclusion.

The Lesson does become too heavy-handed, but that's outweighed by all of Lieb's baroquely inventive details -- the mercenary battles in the parking lot of the school, the theft of a rare Boba Fett figure from an African dictator, Tatiana's work as Oliver's campaign manager. (If Lieb comes back to this setting for a sequel -- and I expect he will -- he'd be well served to do it in Tatiana's voice the next time around; she's at least as evil as Oliver, vastly sneakier than he is, and doesn't have the crutch of wealth and power to fall back on, let alone Oliver's pseudo-secret identity.)

And what's most important is that Genius of Unspeakable Evil is ridiculously fun to read -- Oliver's voice drives it forward, and he's immensely great company for a few hours, the world-slaying wish-fulfillment lord of everything that we all secretly wished we were (and secretly thought we rightfully should have been) as kids. Oliver Watson is gleefully evil, and that glee is catching.   

Movie Log: Still Crazy

I came to Still Crazy -- a decade-old British movie about a '70s rock band reuniting after nearly twenty years apart -- mostly because the lead singer, Ray, was played by Bill Nighy, and I was hoping for something like his sneaky, hilarious performance in a similar role in the slightly later Love, Actually.

Ray is substantially less sure of himself than Billy Mack (his character in Love, Actually) was, but the swagger is very similar. And Still Crazy has a lot of strengths that I didn't anticipate, from a cast packed with exceptional (but non-"star") British actors, like Stephen Rea, Billy Connolly, and Timothy Spall, to a script that knows all of the cliches about rock & roll and so doesn't waste its time retelling them to us for the umpteenth time.

Strange Fruit was a solidly successful band in the '70s -- they clearly were rich during the fat years, though that didn't last after they broke up after a disastrous festival concert in 1982. And then a possibility of another festival in the same location sends ex-keyboardist Tony (Rea) off to gather his bandmates (Spall as drummer Beano Baggott, Nighy as Ray, Jimmy Nail as bassist Les) and their old road manager Karen (Juliet Aubrey) and roadie Hughie (Connolly) in hopes of making it big again. Think Deep Purple, Mott the Hoople, Slade -- with overtones of the Who, the Stones, and several others. The band was founded by two brothers: frontman Keith died of an overdose in mid-career (after which Ray joined the group) and Brian, the guitarist, main songwriter, and massive junkie by the time they broke up, is thought to be dead.

So the reconstituted band -- with a young hotshot, Luke (Hans Matheson), taking Brian's place on lead guitar -- set off for a shakedown tour of Dutch cities, dragging all of their baggage behind them. There are the usual problems and conflicts, but they don't feel like cliches or retreads -- these are real characters, and they have the problems that a lot of people have. They resent each other over things that happened decades ago, and have trouble believing in themselves as well.

And does it all come together in the end for the big concert? Do you have to ask how a movie about the power of rock & roll ends? Still Crazy isn't a movie that will greatly surprise you, but it is funny -- particularly in the interplay of the characters -- and true, with a lot of music that sounds like you just might remember it from the late '70s.

This Is Not a Game by Walter Jon Williams

And then, in front of that audience, she found herself telling that story, about BJ and Austin and Charlie, and the treacherous, devious worlds they had created, when they were all young, and games were all they knew of life.

That's how this immensely satisfying, utterly convincing novel ends, a few moments or months after tomorrow, in a world almost identical to our own. I read it over ten months ago -- back in mid-February, just before it was published -- and I'm sorry that I didn't manage to write about it then, when it might have done a little good.

In any case, this was the new novel from Walter Jon Williams in 2009. And if you know anything about Williams -- if you've read his sophisticated and witty Drake Maijstral novels; or Aristoi, the great lost SF novel of the early '90s; or the two magnificent far-future science fantasies Metropolitan and City on Fire; or incredible short stories like "Prayers On the Wind" -- you know that he's one of the best writers in the speculative fiction field, as consistently inventive and exciting and as compelling a storyteller as anyone. If you haven't read Williams yet, go grab whichever of those earlier books sounds the most intriguing -- or Days of Atonement, one of the best near-future police-procedurals ever written, or the great cyberpunk novel Hardwired, can get this book, which is still available, and practically new.

It's another gripping tale of the bleedingly near future, closest in tone and content to Charles Stross's Halting State. But the games in Not a Game aren't the computer sort -- they're ARGs, artificial reality games, in which players scour the real world and the Internet for clues, and work both with and against each other in their millions to ferret out all of the secrets and clues of a game.

This Is Not a Game focuses on a small group of friends who have known each other for a long time. As always happens, some have succeeded, some have barely survived, and some are in the middle -- like Dagmar, the producer of ARGs who is at the center of the book. Not a Game opens with a semi-separate novella-length section, in which Dagmar is trapped by civil unrest in Jakarta, her life in danger, as all the foreigners flee as quickly as they can. In the longer main section of the novel, she's back in the US, ready to work on a new game, when danger returns to her life in a more complicated way -- and she has to get to the bottom of whatever's going on using the tools she knows best.

This Is Not a Game has one of the best subtitles I've seen in many years -- "A Novel of Greed, Betrayal, and Social Networking" -- and that's a good description of this novel. It's a compelling story about the kind of people that have been driving the future for the last generation, and what might be next; a thriller on both a conceptual SFnal level as well as in its plotting. As always, Williams tells a story that keeps the pages turning while creating real, rounded characters in a deeply believable world -- he's just one of the best out there at the SF game.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston

Huston is the author of the Joe Pitt series of hard-boiled vampire mysteries -- which bear about as much similarity to the usual vampire-fucking urban fantasy book as Mickey Spillane does to Agatha Christie -- of a well-regarded novel called The Shotgun Rule, of another trilogy of mysteries, and of some comics, including a recent Moon Knight run. I'd originally thought this was a standalone novel, but I've since seen some interviews with Huston that make it clear that it begins a new series.

And, before I go further, I have to digress on the subject of "crime fiction." I'm not as well-versed in the worlds of crime and detection as I have been in those of skiffy and fantasy, and had a mental definition of "crime fiction" that was limited and mostly historic: the kinds of novels that Jim Thompson and David Goodis wrote, noir tales of crime and criminals in which things didn't necessarily all go wrong, but that was always the way to bet. (Richard Stark, and I'm sure others, have written novels like that more recently, but it's not a big piece of the mystery/thriller world.) But I've recently learned that "crime fiction" is generally used these days as an analog to "speculative fiction" -- as a wide umbrella term to draw together a range of different works that share some similarities, but also have major differences.

And it's good that I learned this, because The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is definitely a work of crime fiction -- a good one, too -- but it's not a traditional mystery of any subgenre I'm familiar with, nor does it fit easily into the thriller category. So it's nice to know that the bucket for books like this already exists, and that it subsumes all of those more specific buckets. It's also good to see that the contemporary market for crime/mystery/thriller books is large and encompassing enough that things outside of those obvious, old genre paths are that important, and can be as commercially successful as Mystic Arts looks to be.

Mystic Arts is one of those "damaged guy gets better" books -- Webster Filmore Goodhue was until recently a schoolteacher in LA, but has spent the last year sponging off his tattoo-artist roommate Chev and pissing off every single person he comes into contact with after some horribly nasty event that he won't talk, or even think, about. The book is in his voice and from his point of view, so his deep assholishness is mitigated somewhat by his deep self-loathing, but -- don't get me wrong -- he's still a huge asshole. In fact, Web Goodhue is the most negative and offputting protagonist of any novel I've seen in many years.

Since he's reached the end of his friends' and family's patience, Web gets a job with Clean Team, a LA-area trauma cleanup company. (Making Mystic Arts one of two major entertainment vehicles about that job in 2009, along with the movie Sunshine Cleaning. Must be something in the Pine-Sol.) As Huston depicts it, that business is more competitive than you would expect, and Web's dead-man-walking demeanor and punch-me-hard-right-now conversational style leads to various crime-novel complications, and, eventually, to Web starting to get somewhat better. (And to the reader learning what that traumatic event in his past was, which explains a bit of why he's such an asshole, though it doesn't go all the way -- then again, the Huston protagonists I've run across have been medium-grade assholes to begin with, which may explain more.)

Huston's habit of setting off dialogue with dashes instead of quotation marks still comes off as MFA-level affectation, as if he's trying to prove that he's really not one of those grubby genre writers, but a serious litterateur. But any writer this strong and entertaining can be forgiven one affectation, and this is Huston's. It could have been much worse. If Mystic Arts does turn into a series, I'll be interested to see what happens next to Web in his gruesome new career. If not, Mystic Arts makes a fine standalone novel about one man re-finding his humanity while scrubbing down blood and bone fragments.

Movie Log: Extract

Some movies try to do too much, and some don't precisely try -- since that would be too much effort -- but definitely nod in more directions than they can manage to follow up on. Extract is one of the latter, a comedy that could be about labor relations, marital relations, friendship, sexual attraction, a semi-Randian view of the virtues of hard work and single-mindedness, criminality and deceit, or horrible neighbors. Instead, it's essentially about Joel (Jason Bateman) running away from things.

When things get difficult at the food-flavoring plant he owns and operates, he runs home to his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig). When Suzie doesn't immediately respond to his very ham-handed sexual overtures -- as she apparently hasn't done for several month now, and who can blame her? -- he runs off to the hotel bar run by his old buddy Dean (Ben Affleck). And when Dean has bad ideas, as his kind of best friend always does in comedies like this, Jason attempts to run from them, though not always quickly or successfully.

The plant is full of bad-employee stereotypes, from Latino immigrants who speak no English to self-important middle-aged women who know everything except how to get things done well, from a forklift driver who'd rather be playing melodic thrash metal to a redneck wannabe floor manager. The director and writer (both Mike Judge) play this for comedy, and use it to push our sympathy to Joel, the owner -- who is explicitly trying to sell out his operation to General Mills -- even though, as ther boss, he should be responsible for the tone and success of his operation. And things only get more complicated when a gorgeous con-woman, Cindy (Mila Kunis), shows up and sets her sights on whatever men she thinks are most likely to have some money.

Joel, frankly, is unwilling or unable to make any difficult decisions, or to do anything requiring sustained effort -- as I said above, he spends the movie running away from one thing after another,. though it's not at all clear that the movie realizes this. Extract plays as a series of separate scenes, all proceeding from a sub-set of the same large group of starting points, sometimes moving a particular sub-plot forward, but very rarely showing signs of cohering as a single movie. Extract is one story because Joel is in nearly all of the scenes, and the other scenes mostly show the effects of actions that Joel made. But it doesn't quite become a single story, and it doesn't entirely cohere.

Extract is a pleasant movie, and a funny one much of the time. But it spends ninety minutes looking like it's about to develop a point of view and something to say, but never does.

Several Graphic Novels

I'm clearing the decks for the end of the year, so these books get shoved together, even if they don't really fit:

The Blot by Tom Neely (i will destroy you, 2007 trade paperback)

In a style and setting reminiscent of '20s and '30s cartoons -- rubber-pipe arms, bowler hats, fences made of closely set vertical wooden slats -- a nameless man is confronted by a growing blot of ink. The blot is a physical element of his world, moving with seeming purpose -- it spreads over the page like a wave to obliterate whatever was there before and then recedes to leave the world altered. The Blot is nearly wordless -- there's a character who shows up a third of the way through this graphic novel, and who speaks infrequently, but none of the other characters ever speak, nor is there any narration. The blot, of course, is silent -- a symbol of anything or everything, and open to any interpretation.

Neely's story stalks forward with its own logic, relying on the changes wrought by the blot and the nameless hero's growing knowledge of and control over the blot to move it from sequence to sequence. The logic of each section is usually opaque to the reader -- it all seems to make sense, and the blot feels like some kind of concretized metaphor, but The Blot isn't constructed to be a single metaphor, or to fit a single schema. Nelly's hero is A Man -- any of us, or all of us, an Everyman out of a 1928 Sunday comics page -- and the blot is the outside world, or any aspect of it, or whatever torments and threatens us, whatever gives us agency and purpose and strength.

It's a powerful story, and one of the better graphic novels I've read recently. It's refusal to simply mean one thing makes it that much more meaningful and impressive, and I hope Neely is already at work on something else equally fascinating and slippery.

Jellaby: Monster in the City by Kean Soo (Disney/Hyperion, 2009 trade paperback)

This is the second half of a graphic novel for kids about the title creature, who looks something like a baby dragon, following Jellaby (which I read, along with a few dozen other graphic novels, back in March). Jellaby and the two kids that know about him, Portia and Jason, head into "the city" (clearly Toronto) to send Jellaby back to wherever he came from.

It doesn't go as they planned, of course -- the kids fight, and even if they had really wanted to send Jellaby back, actually doing so isn't as easy as they thought. This volume has more action, and substantially more violence, than the first book, so it may upset some younger readers of Jellaby. It also has more of an open ending than the reader might have expected, so there may be more stories about Jellaby and his friends.

As before, this is a solid story for middle-graders (and some older people), with strong characters and a cute drawing style. The tone is a little inconsistent, and it sometimes feels like it's trying to change into a different story, but Jellaby: Monster in the City delivers on the promise of the first book.

Sparky O'Hare, Master Electrician by Mawil (Blank Slate, 2008 small-format paperback)

Mawil is also the author of Beach Safari, which I saw last year; this is a slightly later work (originally published in 2006 in German, and, I suspect, somewhat earlier than that in installments or single pages in a magazine).

Sparky himself looks identical to the nameless "Bunny" main character of Beach Safari, but has a slightly different purpose in this story. The Bunny in Beach Safari was an audience identification character, confused and hapless but plucky and eventually winning out; the reader was on his side and saw the story through his eyes. Sparky is the butt of the jokes in Sparky O'Hare; he's an electrician who works in a small office (one male boss, three female workers), but who causes trouble in all electrical items when he arrives. The point of view is the women of the office, mostly Marianne, who Sparky meets in the first strip and whom he accompanies on an ill-fated business trip -- ostensibly to Asia, though of course anything as complicated electrically as an airplane doesn't manage to work correctly with Sparky on board.

Sparky of course doesn't realize his effect; he can't, for the joke to work. So he's a slightly bumbling character, well-meaning and pleasant but clueless and almost useless. Most of the pages in Sparky O'Hare can function as separate single-page gags, though Mawil also weaves them into longer stories -- such as that ill-fated trip to Asia, and a later sequence in which the boss is declared dead for a while.

There's quite a bit of dialogue and detail on Mawil's pages, and this small-format doesn't show them to best effect; it would be a nicer book at standard trade-paperback size, though it's entirely legible as it is. This is a more obvious and clearly less personal work than Beach Safari, but it has the rhythms and pleasures of a good sitcom, and Mawil's loose, casual line is delightful.

The Aviary by Jamie Tanner (AdHouse Books, 2007 trade paperback)

Fifteen linked stories combine to form a cold world filled with ape pornographers, limbless comedians, cat-headed zombie TV hosts, cyborg penguin crime-scene photographers and their ne'er-do-well sons, masked balls, foul-mouthed receptionists, and talking mannequins. I'm not sure at all that I understand The Aviary -- or any of its constituent stories, for that matter --but it doesn't really matter; Tanner has a cool, detached sensibility that sends Aviary into a graphic-novel version of David Lynch territory, where everything is both dangerous and unspeakably obvious to the characters.

Tanner has a cast of about two dozen main characters, who return in different stories as the book goes on -- though the stories here are not presented in the chronological order that they occurred, and some events (such as a huge flood) may be real or not. And there's a doll -- the "Quiet Bird-Man" -- which has some deep, central significance to this story, though I can't figure out what that is.

So, in short, The Aviary is deeply weird, and entirely slippery, but not unpleasing. And it always seems as if it's just about to make sense.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

One begins to wonder at the gestational period of Pratchett's novels, particularly when his new book for 2009 not only features rampant background football hooliganism, but also the love affair between a uniquely talented young player and a woman who becomes vastly and immediately famous as a model. Surely he didn't suddenly come to this material in the last year or two? Perhaps ideas for Discworld books bubble and ferment in his brain for a decade or so, only coming to fruition when he's sure of every aspect?

However it came to be, the new Discworld novel for 2009 follows the pattern of most of the mature novels in the series; it's the story of How X Came to Discworld, and, secondarily, How Discworld Became Yet More Modern and Like Our World. (Plus the usual tertiary love story, as always kept very Britishly subdued and suitable for a young audience.) In the case of Unseen Academicals, Pratchett let X equal football (what Americans like me usually call soccer, and the denizens of Ankh-Morpork tediously call "foot-the-ball" for too much of this novel), and then populates the resulting novel with those very British soccer hooligans, town-gown conflicts, neighborhood football clubs leading to a Montague/Capulet-style romance, scientific athletic training regimens, and the other baggage of the early days of organized sport. (He doesn't have an equivalent of a fully modern sports league, with its ridiculously expensive luxury stadiums, rich and coddled athletes, naming rights, and corporate sponsors, for which I'm very thankful. Pratchett's besetting sin is his tendency to place his elbow too firmly and regularly in the reader's ribs, and it's a relief whenever he leaves obvious opportunities like those on the table.)

As usual, there's more than the "Introducing X" plot going on; Pratchett has two central characters -- Mr. Nutt, an odd-looking young man from Uberwald, who has the usual Pratchett Unexpected Depths, including a very posh way of speaking and a vast wealth of knowledge, and a Dangerous Secret; and Glenda, the head cook of Unseen University's Night Kitchen, who also has Unexpected Depths, though hers run in more traditionally mercantile and self-bettering ways -- who tentatively circle each other and, separately, explore those Unexpected Depths. (Nutt's true nature threatens to become a central plot, or at least a major complication to the football plot, but never quite does.) And, since this book is set in Ankh-Morpork, and more specifically at Unseen, the usual cast of characters -- the Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully, Ponder Stibbons, the Librarian, the various other academic wizards, the Patrician, and, faintly and quietly in the background, Rincewind -- form a large part of the cast, and their comfortable-as-an-old-shoe antics provide a lot of the interest and comedy in Unseen Academicals. There's also a young man destined to be a Hero of Sport, and the young woman who will become both his girlfriend -- in the very tentative, maiden-aunt-friendly Pratchett style -- and a Heroine of Fashion, though Pratchett doesn't strongly turn them to the satirical uses that it seems he created them for.

Since Unseen Academicals is a sports story, it must of course lead up to The Big Game, and so it does. But Pratchett stages his Big Game as to be devoid of much of the tension it could have had as a pure athletic contest, and also avoids having an eruption of any other kind of danger during the game, making the end somewhat deflating. We knew that the heroes would win, but we hoped that Pratchett would make us believe, along the way, that there was no chance at all that they could possibly win, and that doesn't happen.

Similarly, the Discworld novels of the past decade have become a parade of the ways in which modernity -- banking, reliable postal services, independent media, quick data transmission, et cetera -- transform the previously cod-medieval Ankh-Morpork into a vastly better place in every possible way. (It's coming to feel Polyanna-ish, if not downright Panglossian.) Since the big transformation in this book doesn't noticeably change society, this leads Pratchett to have his characters engage in extended reveries about how much better Nowadays is, with its fancy Clacks and Times, than things used to be. This can make the reader wish he was reading one of those previous novels, which is presumably not the intention.

Unseen Academicals is a minor Discworld book, pleasant and purely entertaining but a bit unfocused, with an ending that ties everything together not perfectly but well enough. The Rincewind books are traditionally the weakest and most frivolous of the series, so perhaps that atmosphere has extended to his fellow UU faculty and this book. And I would still like to see Pratchett take on some issues where the righteousness of his position is not immediately apparent, or perhaps allow that modernity is not an unmixed blessing. But there will, I hope, still be time for that in future books.

Movie Log: The Science of Sleep

I was warned that The Science of Sleep was a weird movie, but I didn't realize how loose and gangly it was; there is something like a plot, but it's thin and runs in circles rather than going anywhere specific.

Gael Garcia Bernal is Stephane, a young man dragged from Mexico to France by his mother for a job that she completely misrepresented. His mother is then almost completely absent for the rest of the movie, despite being his landlord and aparrently living in the same building, which makes the viewer wonder why she went to the trouble. (This is only the first of many elements of The Science of Sleep that don't really make sense if thought about for more than a moment.)

Stephane has immense trouble separating his dream-life from real life, and the movie moves between the two realms regularly. Stephane is perhaps narcoleptic, or has some other exotic ailment; he drops in and out of a dream-state several times a day, and has come to behave as thoughtlessly and randomly in real life as he does in his dreams.

The plot, such as there is -- director Michel Gondry seems to be having a flashback to his earlier career making music videos -- concerns Stephane's half-hearted and self-doubting romantic pursuit of his neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourgh), whom he inadvertently lies to and never quite decides if he's more interested in her or her friend Zoe (Emma de Caunes).

Stephane, frankly, comes across as a stalker, and his inability to follow reality makes him both dangerous and at least mildly unhinged. The viewer is supposed to identify with his romantic nature, but he's really just a deeply confused (and confusing) screw-up who has no idea what he wants -- or even what he doesn't want -- and so just flails about until things happen, and then reacts badly to those things. My eleven-year-old son could probably match him for emotional maturity, which is a very bad thing in the protagonist of what wants to be a romance.

Science of Sleep is wonderfully visually inventive, and the dialogue is an enticing polyglot stew of raw nerves and confused misunderstandings. But it's ultimately unsuccessful as a movie because its main character keeps affecting a kicked-puppy-dog air for no reason, and can't manage to keep up a civil conversation for more than two sentences. It's probably lovely on a large screen, but, at home -- where it plays as a character piece -- Stephane is just too affected and deliberately weird for the viewer to warm up to him.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/26

As expected, this was a light week, with only a few books coming in the mail for potential review. But, as always, I'll note that these books have all just arrived, and that I haven't actually read any of them yet. With that out of the way, here's what I saw:

The Best of Joe R. Lansdale is coming as a trade paperback from Tachyon Publications in March. Now. I've only read a couple of Lansdale's stories, and none of his novels, so I won't be much good at telling you if this is the essential stuff of not. But I can say that it has both "On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert With Dead Folks" and "Night They Missed the Horror Show," which even a Yankee like me knows are two of your quintessential Lansdale stories, and the story "Bubba Ho-Tep," which became a movie you might have heard of.

On the far side of the universe of books from Lansdale -- in terms of audience and genre and just about everything else -- is the "Babymouse" series of graphic novels for young readers, and I also have a new one of those: Babymouse Burns Rubber, the twelfth in the very popular series. (It'll be published on January 12th.) I should really find out if the neighbor girls like these books, because it's wasted on my and my two boys (currently burning through all of the videogames that they got yesterday). Babymouse, as always, is by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm.

I've got another book here for young readers, the third in a series that I hadn't previously known about -- The Gecko and Sticky: Sinister Substitute. As far as I can tell, it's about a boy named Dave and his talking Gecko, Sticky, (yes, the gecko is both halves of the series title, which is slightly confusing). who seem to regularly have unpleasant run-ins with Damien Black, "dastardly treasure hunter and master of disguise." This time, Dave's nasty teacher is missing, possibly replaced by Black, and he -- I gather -- has to decide which of them is more evil and whether he should do anything about it. Sinister Substitute is by Wendelin Van Draanen, and is being published by Knopf Books for Young Readers.

And last for this week -- I warned you that it was a short list -- is King of RPGs, Vol. 1, a new graphic novel from Del Rey on January 19th. It's written by Jason Thompson (author of Manga: The Complete Guide, which I probably shouldn't admit sits right next to my writing chair) and illustrated by Victor Hao. It's the story of a college freshman and recovering World of Warfare (note the very slight change to avoid prosecution) addict who gets sucked into his campus gaming club, and I expect it will parody Yu-Gi-Oh and various online RPGs as it goes on.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

Ironically, How I Became a Famous Novelist is very funny, and starts very strongly -- but it's not, in the end, a successful novel. (Sadly for the author, Steve Hely, it's not yet famous, either, but it's still got plenty of time to achieve that.)

Famous Novelist is narrated by Boston's own Pete Tarslaw, an underachieving twentysomething who spends his days writing college entry essays for idiots with money and his nights in a dingy apartment with a med-school roommate. Pete is sent into a fit of pique as the novel begins by the news that his ex-girlfriend Polly is going to get married -- and so Pete determines to become a famous, successful novelist before the marriage, so that he can lord it over Polly. (This is only the first jarring note -- Hely doesn't really provide a justification for why Pete would be that obsessed with Polly, never providing any substantial flashback scenes of Pete and Polly together or otherwise giving the reader a sense of their relationship.)

On the other hand, the fact that Famous Novelist's view of the publishing world is utterly unrealistic is the point -- when Famous Novelist is successful, it's as a biting satire of publishing and bestsellers -- so Pete's ridiculous career goal is quite achievable. He studies the works on the fiction bestseller list -- particularly a horrible, maudlin "touching" book called Kindness to Birds by one of those salt-of-the-earth, kicked-around-by-life older Southern men called Preston Brooks -- and comes up with sixteen deeply cynical (and quite funny) rules for writing a bestseller. The central, unwritten rule, is, of course, to pander shamelessly to the audience. Pete then hacks out a piece of deliberately "lyrical" dreck called The Tornado Ashes Club, sends it to a college friend who is now a low-level editor at the New York publishing house Ortolan, and finds himself on the path to success.

Famous Novelist is great for the first half -- funny and cynical and knowing and zippy -- as it follows Pete's ascent. In the second half, though, it loses track of its shape and point, as if the novel (or Hely) is unsure whether to be a black comedy (ending with Pete being hugely successful, and ever more successful the more cynical/cruel/heartless he becomes) or a story of redemption (with Pete learning that there actually is such a thing as a good novel, and moving on to try to write one) or a fable of comeuppance (in which Pete is exposed and dashed on the rocks of his own ambition). Hely instead mixes elements of those three potential novels almost randomly, lurching from one to the other as if he had a list of publishing/writerly ideas he wanted to get through and only a limited number of pages to check them all off.

(Hely is a TV writer -- or perhaps a former TV writer -- so I couldn't help wondering if this was written during the writers' strike a few years back. If so, Hely's needing to return to other work could possibly explain the unfocused ending.)

How I Became a Famous Novelist is very funny, even late in the novel, when Hely's losing control of every other aspect of the book. And it's brutally cruel about publishing, in the way that insiders will love and appreciate. (If you can find a copy, turn to p.43 for Hely's version of the New York Times Book Review bestseller list; it's a gem.)

Let me give you a sample, from p.73, when Pete has concocted his rules and is settling down to write:
Writing a novel -- actually picking the words and filling in paragraphs -- is a tremendous pain in the ass. Now that TV's so good and the Internet is an endless forest of distraction. It's damn near impossible. That should be taken into account when ranking the all-time greats. Somebody like Charles Dickens, for example, who had nothing better to do except eat mutton and attend public hanging, should get very little credit.
I can't quite recommend Famous Novelist widely, but -- if you work in publishing, or ever did -- you really should read it. It's set in the version of the publishing world that we all fear is true on that five-meeting day, when our babies are all dying and some piece of crap is selling massive quantities for that other publishing house.

Movie Log: Revenge of the Pink Panther

This is the third of the Sellers Pink Panther movies I've watched with my sons, though my older boy (Thing 1) took to running away during large parts of this movie, for reasons I wasn't entirely able to understand. (I mean, he missed a lot of the really funny stuff!)

Revenge of the Pink Panther has no connection to the previous movie, The Pink Panther Strikes Again; Herbert Lom's Chief Inspector Dreyfuss is still institutionalized as Revenge begins, and not a dead invisible world-conqueror. (Would that more movie series were willing to go that route -- it's generally just the set-up that we really care about, anyway.) So this is a completely independent sequel to The Return of the Pink Panther, or perhaps an alternative to Strikes Again.

Sellers's bits of physical comedy and tomfoolery are better integrated into the plot than in Revenge (where he seemed to be in an entirely different movie than the main plot), and the storyline is less silly than in Strikes Again (though, as one of my sons said near the end, Revenge ends up a lot like a James Bond movie, only funny). It's funny, and only moderately dated -- particularly with an extended drag bit in the first half -- which is what one should look for in a thirty-year-old comedy.

I greatly recommend this, and the previous two '70s Pink Panther films, to tween boys, and any other audiences with tastes for comedy that approximate those of boys -- it's broad, and slapstick, and just the right amount of silly.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan

O'Nan is one of the least-known great writers of our time; he writes mostly heartbreaking novels like this one and The Speed Queen that get glowing reviews and amazing quotes, but don't seem to be read all that widely.

I can understand some of that; O'Nan doesn't write happy stories, and no one would want a straight diet of his novels. But if you don't read Stewart O'Nan, you're missing some of the finest novels that contemporary American fiction has to offer -- they might not be about happy events, generally, or particularly escapist, but they tell stories you'll never forget, with people who are as real as the thoughts in your own head.

A Prayer for the Dying, for example, is a historical novel, set soon after the Civil War in Friendship, Wisconsin, as a diptheria epidemic marches through the countryside. Jacob Hansen -- the sheriff, undertaker, and pastor of small Friendship -- is the central character. And, as the title and O'Nan's reputation suggests, he watches a lot of people die around him.

O'Nan tells this story quickly -- the book is just under two hundred pages long -- and with surgical precision, without wasting a word. It's written in a haunting second person, dragging the reader headlong into Jacob's world, and his head. It's not a nice novel, or a sweet novel, or a comforting one. But it is beautiful in its starkness, and packs a devastating punch.

Incoming Books: Christmas!

As part of the general festivities yesterday -- as usual, the Pompton Lakes Wheelers had our Day of Three Christmases, with a fourth (my extended family) to follow tomorrow and a fifth (The Wife's extended family) to be held without us, since the first date was snowed out two weeks ago and we're already booked for the new date -- I got some books as gifts.

One of the gifts, though, was a book I ordered from Amazon for myself months ago -- long before it was published -- and had The Wife wrap it up when it arrived, a week or so earlier than expected, on the 23rd. And another short stack of books are things I special-ordered at my favorite independent (the mighty Montclair Book Center), with the intention of picking them up while I'm on vacation next week, but which The Wife bought for me by surprise.

So most of these are books I expected and even ordered myself -- that's weird, but not entirely un-Christmassy.

Biggest and probably best is Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons, a giant three-books-in-a-slipcase set from Fantagraphics. We really are in a golden age of fancy books of cartoons (led by the major Calvin & Hobbes and Far Side retrospectives from a few years back), and Wilson's work definitely deserves and benefits from the great packaging. Some snobs will predictably turn their noses up at Playboy, but it's been one of the most dependable sources of good gag cartoons for the last half-century -- and one of the strongest and earliest supporters of Wilson's macabre and creepily funny work. Wilson is the great whistling-past-a-graveyard cartoonist of our time, and it's wonderful to see his work treated with this much care and respect.

The stack of books were all by P.G. Wodehouse, and all from Overlook's continuing series of small hardcovers. They've now published sixty-some of Wodehouse's roughly hundred books in a uniform format, and I have nearly all of them. (Though I'm getting behind on reading them; I may have to go on a Wodehouse binge sometime in 2010.) The ones I got yesterday were:
  • The Man With Two Left Feet, a story collection 1917 including the first appearance of Jeeves
  • Doctor Sally, a very short novel originally serialized in Collier's in the early '30s [1]
  • Barmy in Wonderland, a '50s comedy apparently in a very high Wodehouse style
  • A Few Quick Ones, another story collection, this time from the '50s
  • and Galahad at Blandings, a late novel in the Blandings Castle series, complete with impostors and aimless men threatened with marriage.

And then there was one unexpected book, something I didn't actually order myself: Stephen Fry in America. This, I gather, is the companion to a TV show that I don't think has aired over here yet -- perhaps it has in the UK -- for which Fry motored around the USA in a London black cab for several months, accompanied only by a large film crew. The idea is appealingly stunt-ish; I know I've had vague daydreams of seeing "the whole country," and I'm sure others have as well. And Fry has been a dependably humorous and witty writer so far.

[1] It just struck me that I'll probably live long enough for "the thirties" to have an entirely different referent. And I wonder if the Twenties will roar this time around, too?