Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 300 (11/30) -- Transition by Iain M. Banks

I'm coming to this novel a full year after it was published, so all of the possible puns and plays on "transition" -- of phases in a novelist's career, of Banks's switching from SF to "mainstream" fiction and back again, and a dozen more -- have already been made, leaving nothing clever for me to begin this review with. Maybe I can point out that Banks, after a slow beginning of the decade (novels in 2000, 02, and 04), has now put out four novels in the past four years and that his twenty-four novels (including Surface Detail, this year's book) are now precisely balanced between "Iain Banks" mainstream and "Iain M. Banks" science fiction.

(Surely there's grist for at least one dissertation in that!)

But Transition doesn't require any gymnastics to make it interesting: it's a gripping SF novel all by itself, one of Banks's occasional one-offs unrelated to the Culture universe and a universe-hopping story of intrigue and danger in the paratime tradition of The Coming of the Quantum Cats and "His Dark Materials". Banks, however, has a new wrinkle on the universe-hopping of his predecessors: in Transition, the travel isn't accomplished physically at all. The original body always stays behind, and the mind/soul/spirit of the traveler is imposed on a body in the new universe -- usually somewhat similar to the traveler, in one way or another, but there are variations. (Some travelers can bring physical objects with them, which seems very unlikely, given any plausible mechanism for soul-transfer, and others have even more exotic sub-abilities, such as bringing a coitally-joined partner along, until the reader begins to suspect Banks is throwing these recomplications out to keep his plot humming rather than from any thought of plausibility.)

Well, anyway: there's a mechanism for traveling between worlds, and it requires unknowing targets on the far end -- one of the main precepts of Transition is that simply knowing about Transition, or being Aware, is a perfect protection. (And yet some worlds are almost entirely Aware...and yet, or thus, are hubs of travel? While reading, it was zippy and fun, but I'm afraid that pulling on the strings of Transition will cause it to fall apart very quickly.)

Transition is told from the point of view of multiple narrators, and, in a very Banksian touch, several of them (The Transitionary, Patient 8262, The Philosopher) have identifiers rather than names -- because, of course, those who travel between the worlds by hopping bodies are different people everywhere they go. All but one of them -- a yobbish banker on our Earth named Adrian, whom I'm afraid Banks means to stand in for a lot of traits he doesn't like -- are Aware, and move about between worlds, either in the present day of their narrative, or in retrospect. The complications of the story and story-telling -- with events happening on many, usually unnamed, worlds, and at different, never specified times -- combine to make Transition into a wave of events: the reader just has to let it wash over her, trusting that all the dots will join up in the end to make a picture.

And it does: there's an organization, called the Concern (or sometimes other things) that is the Paratime Police equivalent: molding the many worlds in ways they always claim tend toward peace and prosperity. Of course, there's also a splinter faction -- led by the revolutionary with the most unlikely name I've seen in years, Mrs. Mulverhill -- who are either dangerous lunatics or the last hope for the humanity of infinite worlds against the cold control of the influential and ever-more-powerful Madame d'Ortolan. In the middle of their battle is The Transitionary, who was born Temudijn Oh, and who narrates most of Transition.

There may be a writer out there who's capable of writing a long SF novel in which the forces of control and limitation win out against freedom and potential, but I can't think of any right now -- and Banks certainly doesn't disappoint on that front. For all of its literary strengths and smart writing, Transition is a very old-fashioned SF book, all about smashing the Evil Empire and one man walking free after doing what he knows is right. And, as I said above, the actual mechanisms of Transition don't bear too much thinking about -- the reader has to accept Banks's rules, as they're doled out, and not try to form any larger schemata out of them. For the reader who can do that, Transition is a high-powered story engine, driven by one of the best writers in the business -- and he comes closer to a happy ending than he's done recently, which may help win over those more traditional SF fans that like stories of body- and universe-hopping.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Monday, November 29, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 299 (11/29) -- Love and Rockets: New Stories, No. 3 by The Hernandez Brothers

Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez are not just two of the best and most consistent comics creators of their generation, they're so far out in front that the only question is which of the two is preeminent. There are plenty of others who have created works as strong as the best Palomar or Maggie & Hopey stories -- Black Hole, Ghost World, Alec, What It Is, Maus, It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken -- but there's no one else who has put together the body of work that the Hernandezes have. Year after year, they keep expanding and deepening their worlds, telling new stories as powerful as they've ever done -- they're our Balzacs, our Trollopes.

Besides their various sidebar projects -- which are, at this point, mostly connected to their Love & Rockets universe -- they're still providing a yearly dose of the mothership, in the annual Love and Rockets: New Stories trade paperback. (I reviewed the first one for ComicMix and buried thoughts about the second in a graphic novel round-up here.) And now there's the third one, with another hundred pages of Hernandez Bros. comics.

Gilbert continues in the vein of his recent work, with "Scarlet by Starlight" -- a science fiction story about "innocent" natives on a far-away planet and the humans who irrevocably change their lives -- and "Killer * Sad Girl * Star," another Hollywood story about the young actress Killer, in which "Scarlet" turns out to be a movie from his fictional world. Sudden, unexpected violence continues to be Gilbert's punctuation -- and his cast is filled with an endless supply of women with really unlikely upper-body development -- so these stories don't break any new ground, though they're both good examples of Gilbert doing what he does well.

Jaime's half of the book, though, is a departure from the "Ti-Girls Adventures" -- frivolous wresting-cum-superhero stories featuring somewhat more fantastic versions of his main characters -- of the last two volumes. There's a short modern-day story, "The Love Bunglers," separated into two parts, with one of Gilbert's stories and the major Jaime story "Browntown" in between. "Love Bunglers" functions to amplify "Browntown" and place it in context, but it's that longer story that's the major piece in this year's volume.

Maggie is about eleven in "Browntown" -- old enough to start to know better, to have her own ideas about how things are and about how they're supposed to be -- when her family reunites in a different desert California city. (Not Hoppers/Huertas.) Her father is having an affair -- another affair, probably -- and her younger brother Calvin is falling into a situation that will damage the rest of his life. And Maggie -- back among her mother's family, who all call her "Perla" -- has a chance to get out, going to some kind of magnet school for gifted kids. But we know Maggie won't get out -- this is the past, and we know she went back to Hoppers, and everything that happened after that. "Browntown" is a precisely told, devastating story of how everything important fell apart for one family, through the eyes of Maggie. Jaime tells that story subtly, through insinuation and implication as much as by showing events, so that we see it through Maggie's eyes. It's a great short story -- not just for comics, but of any kind.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/27

Last week was wonderful in the land of Hornswoggler -- two days of work (and not terribly onerous work, either, since all of the usual meetings were cancelled) and five of vacation, a reversal of the usual pattern that I wish I'd have a chance to get used to. The coming week looks to be busier, but probably more interesting as well -- and who wants to lounge around the house all day anyway?

As always, a week brought mail, and some of that mail was packages of books. Below, I'll list those books, in as much detail as I can figure out, in the hopes some of them will look exciting to some of you. I haven't read any of them yet, though this first book looks particularly good to me:

Ayako is the latest of Vertical's English translations of major adult graphic novels from the massive (and wonderful) backlist of the godfather of manga, Osamu Tezuka. It follows the chilling MW (my review), the shocking Apollo's Song (my review), and the exciting Ode to Kirihito (my review), and I'm hoping that it's just as good as those three. It's certainly a major work by one of the greatest names in 20th century comics, so its publication (officially tomorrow, in hardcover) is an event. If you read comics, and haven't checked out Tezuka's adult work yet, take a look at it, or one of the three books I mentioned above -- he's much more than just Astro Boy.

Sometimes you want to read a steampunk book. And sometimes you want to read a sword and sorcery book. But what about the times you want to read both? Either you have to train your eyeballs to track different pages simultaneously, or you have to switch back and forth -- neither option being all that palatable. But now you can have both in one book: Tim Akers's The Horns of Ruin, the story of Eva Forge, the last Paladin of the Dead God, Morgan, and the technologically advanced city of Ash, built after Morgan's brother Amon killed him. It's a brilliant idea, the kind that makes you (well, me) smile uncontrollably, and the book just has to be a hoot, since it was written by the man who had that idea. Pyr is publishing it in trade paperback this week -- you can go buy it right this second, if the mash-up of steampunk and S&S sounds as good to you as it does to me.

Pyr has also been reprinting the heroic fantasy novels of the British writer James Barclay -- they've run through his "Chronicles of the Raven" trilogy over the past year, and now it's time for the sequel trilogy "Legends of the Raven." (The Raven is a mercenary band -- the best at what they do, which isn't pretty, and so forth; you know the drill -- in a multi-racial fantasy world, and was memorably described as "five men and an elf," which is how I have thought of them since then. However, since they are a mercenary company, I'm pretty sure people die/join/quit now and then, so they may not be permanently five men and an elf.) The first book of "Legends" is Elfsorrow, which Pyr is publishing in trade paperback tomorrow, and the second book is Shadowheart [1], coming a mere two weeks later, in med-December.

Last for this week is a neat book from Drawn & Quarterly about an interesting -- and, up until recently, utterly forgotten -- New York cartoonist. Denys Wortman's New York collects nearly three hundred drawings from Metropolitan Movies -- a slice-of-life strip he drew for the New York World for thirty years starting in 1924 -- and elsewhere by Wortman, arranged as if they showcased one single day in the life of the city, from the earliest morning to the end of the night. I'm all for rediscovering lost masters, and Wortman's art looks particularly expressive and evocative. New York will hit stores in December -- and that's right around the corner, so you might be able to find it already, if you take a close look.

[1] Which title Barclay put on his book some time before it was published in the UK back in 2003, so any Johnnie-come-latelies using that title for the fourth books of their epic fantasy trilogies are owed a furrowed brown and a mildly disapproving glance. Then again, titles can't be copyrighted so we all could call our next books Shadowheart if we wanted to. And that would be totally awesome, actually -- can you image if every major novel published in 2011 was called Shadowheart? I can just see the Hugo ballot now....

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 298 (11/28) -- The Complete Peanuts: 1975-1976 by Charles M. Schulz

Peanuts wasn't in its first flowering in the mid-70s -- perhaps time and success had worked off some of the sharp edges, perhaps Charles Schulz's recent divorce had freed him from some of the deeper emotions that had fueled the strip through the '60s, perhaps it had just been twenty-five years of the same thing -- but it was still a smart, perceptive, deeply funny and humanistic strip. Schulz also stretched his continuities to lengths not typically seen in gag-a-day strips; there are several storylines in these two years that took up five or more weeks each.

The Complete Peanuts: 1975-1976 is the lucky thirteenth volume in Fantagraphics' reprinting of the entirely of Schulz's great strip; it's also the halfway point between 1950 and 2000. And the more interesting question about Peanuts circa 1975 isn't "How come it wasn't as good then as in 1952 or 1967", but instead "How come Peanuts was still this good after twenty-five years?" [1]

Because these two years are still excellent work, with those long sequences (Peppermint Patty's stint at an obedience school, Snoopy's attempted trip to Wimbledon, the intertwined story of Charlie Brown going to see a team Joe Shlabotnik is managing and Peppermint Patty's flying in the Powderpuff Derby on Snoopy's doghouse, and several others of two weeks or longer) bringing an almost adventure-strip scope and energy to Peanuts. Schulz doesn't rely on his old standards as much during this period, either: the Great Pumpkin is mentioned, but not much more, and the Joe This-and-that of a few years before has entirely disappeared. But he can still turn those standards into something new and exciting, as with this pointed strip from the fall of 1976 (click for a larger view)
The man who could still do a Sunday like that -- following a "formula" he'd created two decades before, on a strip-a-day schedule (plus all of the other ancillaries Peanuts was throwing off by the mid-70s) -- is still a creative force to be reckoned with. Yes, mid-70s Peanuts wasn't as good as the very best years of the strip's part -- but it was still one of the very best things (if not the best) on the comics page those years. And we shouldn't forget that.

[1] For one man's biased view at how good earlier years of Peanuts were, see my posts on the subject.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 297 (11/27) -- Penguin 75 edited by Paul Buckley

It certainly makes sense to publish a book of great covers to celebrate the 75th anniversary of a famous publishing imprint. It makes slightly less sense to focus on the covers of the last decade, though, and it makes only the tiniest bit of sense not to date any of those covers.

Penguin 75 is a well-designed collection of some great covers -- 75 of them, to be precise -- and it also has commentary from the various people involved in those covers (designers, art directors, editors, publishers, authors, translators), which is a great window into the cover process for design students, those of us at other publishing houses, and nosy parkers everywhere. It doesn't explain at any time how the covers were chose for the book, what the scope of the book is, or any niggling little details like that -- it's just a collection of 75 relatively recent covers for Penguin paperbacks [1], with commentary from two or three interested parties.

Penguin has had a great decade, though -- with an exciting relaunch of the venerable Penguin Classics series and, possibly because of that success, quirkier, art-driven sub-series of Penguin backlist like Penguin Ink (cover designs by tattoo artists) and Graphic Classics (cover designs by contemporary indy-comics creators), plus lots of excellent single titles. So Penguin 75 may be trying to ride the anniversary's coat-tails [2], but it's a great book full of lots of excellent covers. All three of those series I just mentioned are covered here -- including commentary from Jason, Julie Doucet, Seth, Joe Sacco, and Dan Clowes -- plus iconic covers like Eat, Pray, Love; The Memory Keeper's Daughter; and On Beauty. And I only just realized at this moment, while looking at the Table of Contents again, that the covers are arranged alphabetically by title (with a few oddities), running from 100 Facts About Pandas to Zero.

Since I'm in the trenches myself, I would have liked to see more details -- more of the discarded comps, more of the middle stages, just more of the process. But Penguin 75 is only partially a book about process; it's also presenting the finished covers as works of art in themselves, and the general audience will be much more interested in that than in the minutia of the creation of these covers, so that's a smart choice. The book that actually exists is one of wider interest than the one I might have wanted to see, which is only to be expected.

Anyone interested in product packaging as art, or in industrial design in general, will want to take a look at Penguin 75, besides the usual book-industry folks (who almost certainly already know about it.). If you're not interested in the packaging of books, or in cover art (outside, perhaps of certain genre ghettos), you can pass it by.

But, before I'm done, let me pass on the single most important piece of advice about book covers (which is mentioned at least once here). Never, ever show a cover that you can't live with -- whether you're the designer, the editor, the marketer, the publisher, or whoever. If there's a possible design you just can't stand, take it out of the mix...or it will end up being the final.

[1] Those of us in the industry figured that out already, since Penguin is traditionally a paperback imprint.

[2] There's a book called Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005 that's the actual history-of-Penguin-cover-art that this book intermittently pretends to be.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Friday, November 26, 2010

Incoming Books: 22 November

This past Monday was the annual SFWA New York shindig -- affectionately termed the "Mill & Swill," and which I always refer to as the one time in a the year that writers pay for publishers' drinks -- and they're still inviting me, for whatever optimistic or forgetful reason. So I went, even though the venues have greatly fallen from the sublime of fifteen years ago (an indoor/outdoor space at a reasonably swanky hotel on Central Park South) to the ridiculous of now (Planet Hollywood in Times Square).

There's nothing to say about the event itself: I talked with a bunch of people I don't see all that often, mostly shouting over the roar of the crowd, and not talking about anything of consequence. All I could do is name-drop, and that would be silly.

But, on the way to the Mill & Swill, I did have time to stop in at a local comics shop and buy some books -- so let me talk about those instead.

Castle Waiting, Vol. 2 is the second collection of the series by the apparently very modest Linda Medley. (Her name appears in full on the real book -- unlike the image to the left -- only in a copyright notice at the very end of the book, and only otherwise as "L. Medley" on a small sticker on the back cover, just above the bar code. I do wonder if that was on purpose, or if the book-design freight train got too far along before they realized they'd forgotten the author.) I've got several, if not all, of the issues that this reprints sitting in a short stack of comics floppies that accumulated between the point when I stopped reading comics in floppy form and the point when I realized that. Now, perhaps, I can find something else to do with those, and continue moving my comics-consuming habit entirely into squarebound form.

What I Did is another omnibus collection from Jason, after last year's Almost Silent. Three whole books for $25 -- what a bargain! (I was a little late to discover Jason -- which is my way of saying "everyone else who read alt-comics knew and loved his stuff three years before I did" -- but I'm now catching up. I've covered his books as Book-A-Day #s 263, 206, 95, 94, 93, and, before that, as bits of much longer posts that I won't bother to link to.)

And, because life itself is not nearly depressing enough, I got the new 20th issue of ACME Novelty Library by the ever self-effacing Chris Ware. This one has the word "Lint" prominently emblazoned on its cover, so I am tentatively assuming that it's a new standalone graphic novel of that title. (Or perhaps not: Ware is hermetic and gnomic as usual.) (And, by the way, Mr Ware: books where the ISBN only appears on the plastic outer wrapping are the work of the devil, and should be hissed at by all civilized folks everywhere. Just saying.)

On the more punchy-punchy side, there also is a new Hellboy-i-verse book, B.P.R.D.: King of Fear, by the central team of Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, and Guy Davis. The back cover doesn't actually say that this is the third and last volume of "Scorched Earth," but I think it is.

Similarly punchy-punchy, though in a different style, is Bryan Talbot's Grandville Mon Amour, sequel to last year's Grandville graphic novel. (Which I reviewed as Book-A-Day #23.)

And last is this year's big art annual edited by Cathy and Arnie Fenner, Spectrum 17. I feel compelled every year to point out that I bought these for the book club for the first twelve/thirteen years of their existence, so it still feels wrong to buy it in a store. (Instead of seeing a sample cover over the summer, negotiating quantities and prices, and then finally putting in an order for an office copy from the warehouse.) Well, life does move on, even if we try not to let it.

Book-A-Day 2010 # 296 (11/26) -- The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb

The ideal reviewer of this book would be both a biblical scholar and an expert deeply versed in the works of R. Crumb, able equally to explain the importance of the lineage of the house of Israel and explicate the image of the girl with the big butt. And perhaps that review exists out in the world somewhere, not just in the realm of Platonic images. In either case, this review will come nowhere near that -- I may have won the Bible Olympics two years running, but that was as a boy, against weak competition, and in a very liberal '70s Sunday school, and my knowledge of Crumb has many vast holes in it.

The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb is exactly what the title promises: not an "adaptation," not a "reenvisioning," not anything that could be described with a fancy postmodern term. Crumb took the text of the Biblical book of Genesis -- mostly from Robert Alter's recent translation The Five Books of Moses -- slightly reorganized it so that it worked as dialogue in and captions around comics panels, and then drew that same story. It's both a Crumb comic of Genesis and the full text -- unlike most comics versions of a prose work, all of the words are still there.

That makes Crumb's Book of Genesis very wordy, of course, but Genesis was never a book that went into great depths of physical description, so Crumb's art does fill an existing gap (though not, I'd say, a necessary one, as the old saying goes). Genesis is not the very most boring book of the Old Testament -- Leviticus descends quickly into an intricate description of everything a Temple priest could and had to do and say, and some others rival even that -- but it covers several generations of Abraham's family, plus all of the preliminary creating-the-world (and destroying it, or parts of it) stuff, which inevitably leads to the long strings of begats and names, just in case you might forget that the sons of Levi are Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.

Crumb's people are lumpy and rough-featured; he's never been an artist to beautify his subjects, and Genesis has freed him to create a thousand scowling Semitic faces. Only a few of those faces are actually ugly, but none are beautiful; even the most comely women are sturdy and strong in the traditional Crumb style, and well in keeping with the Biblical virtues of fecundity and endurance. And, after reading Crumb's Genesis, if I never see another big hairy beard, it will be fine -- there are a least a dozen runners-up to Alan Moore here for the Best Beard in Comics award. They do look like the half-wild desert nomads of three and four thousand years ago, though, which no other Biblical illustrations and comics I've seen have done. Crumb's Abraham and Isaac, Noah and Joseph, Adam and Lot look like the "real" men may have, like actual men living in a harsh land during difficult times, and that's something to hold up on the other side of the scale from the begats and the random violence of the Biblical Lord.

Crumb's Book of Genesis is the very definition of a vanity project: odd and quirky, speaking to the artist's passions and obsessions rather than to any thought of the mass of readers. And yet it has found its readership, from Crumb fans and those seriously interested in the Pentateuch. Would that all vanity projects did that well, and would that all artists had the drive and resources to do as well by their own obsessions as Crumb did. This isn't a book that I expect I'll go back to much (if at all), but there are many readers who are not me, and Crumb's Book of Genesis is an impressive marker for one of the many directions that serious comics can go.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 295 (11/25) -- Pluto Vol. 1 by Naoki Urasawa with Takashi Nagasaki

I read a lot of mediocre manga back when I was doing my regular "Manga Friday" columns for ComicMix -- the equivalent of spending a couple of years reading third-tier Batman and Wolverine books, to put it into a Western context -- so it's good to remind myself that there's some really strong material in the manga world, even in the more commercial end of it. To continue that tenuous metaphor, Pluto is the Japanese equivalent of Neil Gaiman's Marvel 1602: a reworking of classic genre material that doesn't try to take it completely out of the bounds of that genre (since that's where it works best) but which changes the entire context and creates a new, deeper story, as strong and supple as anything in the genre.

Pluto is a retelling -- a radical retelling, taking names and general outlines but not much more -- of Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy story "The Greatest Robot on Earth." [1] But Astro Boy is not at the center of this story -- in fact, we first see a Japanese boy called "Atom" on the very last page of this first volume. Instead, the main character is the European detective Gesicht: smart, perceptive, driven...and one of the "seven great robots" of the world. He's also completely human-looking -- some robots are, and some look very much like robots. The humanoform robots can only be told from humans on sight by the extraordinary stillness.

Gesicht has two difficult murder cases on his hands: the universally beloved giant Swiss forestry robot Mont Blanc has died mysteriously during a forest fire, and Bernard Lanke, the mostly detested head of a robot rights organization, was brutally murdered in his apartment. Neither case has any obvious leads or evidence -- very strangely so, in Lanke's case, leading to the assumption that no human could have been in the room to kill him -- but the cases are not clearly linked, except for the fact that both corpses were arranged with makeshift horns on their heads.

Urasawa gives Gesicht's story the first three chapters, to see both murder scenes, to start puzzling through some of the unlikelier parts of the cases, and to question the last robot that broke the no-killing-humans law, eight years before. Urasawa has the ease and vigor of a creator long used to working with large-scale stories; these are clearly early chapters in a much longer story, but there's no infodumps or other expository lumps; this world flows out smoothly behind Gesicht and the people he deals with, and Urasawa is always in utter control of the story and its telling. A strongly unified manga series is a larger story than most forms allow -- it's on a level with a multi-season TV arc, or a closely-plotted multi-book prose series -- and Urasawa is one of the masters of that length, utterly comfortable with making his chapters both sturdy building blocks in the larger story and interestingly-shaped pieces of story themselves.

That ease and mastery is even more obvious in the following chapters -- Urasawa leaves Geischt behind to focus those three chapters on the aged, blind, and cranky film composer Paul Duncan, and his new robot butler, North No. 2, in Duncan's remote Scottish castle. The reader eventually realizes that North No. 2 is one of the great robots of the world -- and what that implies -- but the story at hand is of one many stuck in his artistic work because of unpleasant memories from his youth, and how his servant helps him to work past that. It's entirely a sidebar to the main story of Pluto, but it's also completely necessary -- it shows what kind of a person North No. 2 was, instead of just dragging him out as another victim of the mysterious killer.

That killer is still entirely mysterious at the end of this volume, and the list of great robots is quickly diminishing, with much of the story left to be told. (I see that there are eight volumes already published in English, and that may not be the end.) There's still no sense of the killer's motives, let along his abilities and origin -- but Pluto is already engrossing and fascinating, and I definitely want to see more of Gesicht.

[1] Tezuka's name is in the subtitle, but he was dead long before this story was written -- his credit here is in honor of the original story, and of all of the borrowings Pluto takes from his work. Pluto was written and drawn by the acclaimed manga-ka Naoki Urasawa, best known in the US for 20th Century Boys and Monster, with co-writing assistance from his longtime collaborator Takashi Nagasaki and oversight by Tezuka's son Macoto Tezuka (himself a noted filmmaker and visual artist).

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 294 (11/24) -- Top Shelf Asks The Big Questions

Anthologies are difficult to review to begin with, and seven-year-old anthologies doubly so. Add to that the fact that Top Shelf Asks the Big Questions was, in hindsight, the book that showed that the publishing company Top Shelf was, well, to be blunt, really Top Shelf, and you'd need someone vastly better versed in all of the ins and outs of the indy comics scene of the past decade to really do it justice.

Sadly, what you have is me, so I'll try to be brief instead of blundering around for an extended period. It's not that Asks the Big Questions is a perfect anthology -- I didn't think that everything in it works, and it has an awful lot of random prose for a comics anthology -- but that everything in it is pitched at the same high level of ambition, that it's casually international just because that's how it should be (with a section on "the New Swiss Scene," plus other works scattered throughout), and because it's just big enough and full enough (over 300 pages) to be a whole world of comics of its own.

There aren't a lot of cartoonists I recognized in Asks the Big Questions -- partially a result of that international focus, partially because I haven't paid enough attention to this end of the comics market, and partially because people are always dropping in and out -- but there's a good Jason story, a minor Alan Moore/Melinda Gebbe strip, an excellent James Kochalka to close it out, and several other notable works. It's imperfect in the hard-to-navigate ways far too many anthologies are, as well: there's no table of contents, the list of contributors is buried near the end and not browsable or particularly readable, and the credits for each story are too-discretely placed at the bottom of the first page. What that means, of course, is that the reader finds himself dropping back, asking himself, "Who did this one? This style isn't familiar either!" over and over again, and finding a lot of new and exciting names. (Well, they were new and exciting in 2003, and they're new and exciting if your experience is more in the ground-level indies, as mine is -- I'm sure there's a sizable audience for whom all of these names were old hat even in 2003.)

Asks the Big Questions is schizophrenic in one very interesting way: it feels almost evenly divided between pantomime strips (and not just the ones from the international crowd) and very wordy pieces, both the text features (a history of the New Swiss Scene, an interview with David Chelsea, etc.) and a smattering of stories that are very text-heavy themselves. Perhaps someone shook Asks the Big Questions very hard, and the words settled unevenly? My silly fancies aside, Asks the Big Questions is still an exciting, well-curated look at the world of possibilities of comics, even this many years later. The next time Top Shelf has one of their awesome sales, I'd recommend grabbing a copy and checking it out.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Meme: Every Goddamn Animated Movie Ever Made (Almost)

I got this meme from a new source, Warren Peace Sings The Blues, and, as usual, it's one of those long annotate-this-list things:

All the animated movies in the world, sort of

- X what you saw
- O what you haven't finished/seen or saw sizable portions
- Bold what you loved
- Italicize what you disliked/hated
- Leave unchanged if neutral

[X] 101 Dalmatians (1961)
[X] Alice in Wonderland (1951)
[X] Bambi (1942): As far as I know, my older son still thinks that this movie ends when Bambi goes to sleep in the winter.
[X] Cinderella (1950)
[X] Dumbo (1941)
[X] Fantasia (1940)
[X] Lady and the Tramp (1955)
[X] Mary Poppins (1964)
[X] Peter Pan (1953)
[X] Pinocchio (1940)
[X] Sleeping Beauty (1959): It looks gorgeous, but it's the dullest of the "classic" Disney movies.
[X] Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
[X] Song of the South (1946): I have the sense that I've seen it, or at least the animated sections of it -- maybe on the Disney TV show in the '70s? I know it hasn't been released in ages, so my memory may be faulty.

Note: I was born in 1969, so I saw most of these in theaters; in those days Disney was re-releasing all its major animated movies every few years. (I saw Fantasia in high school with friends, which was awesome, though of course we spent half the movie talking about how much better it would have been if we were high. Ah, the early '80s!)

[X] The Aristocats (1970)
[X] The Black Cauldron (1985): Though it may be mostly faulty memory, a love for Llyod Alexander's books, and the fact that I hadn't seen a Disney movie in a theater for a few years that makes me love it.
[ ] The Fox and the Hound (1981): Though my brother, several years younger, did see it and loved it. I had just aged out of G-rated movies at that point.
[ ] The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
[X] The Jungle Book (1967)
[X] The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977): This is actually a compilation of three shorts (20ish minutes each); the family watched those shorts many times when the boys were wee.
[ ] Oliver and Company (1986)
[X] Pete's Dragon (1977)
[X] The Rescuers (1977)
[X] Robin Hood (1973)
[X] The Sword In The Stone (1963): At least once in a church hall, from a projector with no sound.

Note: I don't entirely subscribe to the "after Walt died, Disney animation went all to hell, until Katzenberg discovered Broadway" theory; I don't like most of the bits of Katzenberg movies I've seen, and I like '70s Disney. This may just show that, again, I was born in 1969.

[X] Aladdin (1992)
[ ] Beauty and the Beast (1991)
[ ] A Goofy Movie (1995)
[ ] Hercules (1997)
[ ] The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
[ ] The Lion King (1994)
[ ] The Little Mermaid (1989)
[ ] Mulan (1998)
[ ] Pocahontas (1995)
[ ] The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
[ ] Tarzan (1999)

Note: These were years when I was in my 20s and didn't have kids; I wasn't watching many G-rated stories about animals. And I don't miss any of them; the bits I've seen look like the worst excesses of '80s Broadway, dipped in an extra load of schmaltz.

[ ] Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
[X] Bolt (2008): Not a movie for the ages, but awfully good at what it sets out to do.
[X] Brother Bear (2003): A solid old-fashioned Disney movie.
[X] Chicken Little (2005): Not as bad as it looked, but not very good, either.
[ ] Dinosaur (2000)
[X] The Emperor's New Groove (2000): For my money, the best Disney animated movie in at least two decades.
[ ] Fantasia 2000 (2000)
[X] Home on the Range (2004): Much, much funnier than you'd expect.
[ ] Lilo & Stitch (2002)
[X] Meet the Robinsons (2007): Awesome design and style, amusing to watch, but a thin story.
[ ] Treasure Planet (2002)

Note: You can pretty well peg when my older son (born 1998) was old enough to see movies in a theater: 2003. Suddenly, I was watching animated critters again.

[X] A Bug's Life (1998): The only mediocre movie Pixar has ever made.
[X] Cars (2006): The only bad movie Pixar has ever made.
[X] Finding Nemo (2003): The first movie that my younger son saw in a theater -- and it was, appropriately enough, one with a dampness problem and a steady drip in one corner.
[X] The Incredibles (2004): Marred only by two or three lines of dialogue that are so on-the-nose that one wants to punch Brad Bird in his.
[X] Monsters Inc. (2001): Has it really been a decade? I think this was the first movie I took my older son to.
[X] Ratatouille (2007): One of the best movies about creation I've ever seen.
[X] Toy Story (1995)
[X] Toy Story 2 (1999): I still think this is the best of the three.
[X] Toy Story 3 (2010)
[X] Wall-E (2008): The message got too strident in the late innings, but it's still a fine movie.
[X] Up (2009): Absolutely lovely, with one of the greatest concretized metaphors in all of fiction.

[ ] All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989)
[ ] An American Tail (1986)
[ ] An American Tail: Fieval Goes West (1991)
[ ] Anastasia (1997)
[ ] The Land Before Time (1988)
[ ] The Pebble and the Penguin (1995)
[ ] Rock-a-Doodle (1991)
[X] The Secret of NIMH (1982)
[ ] Thumbelina (1994)
[ ] Titan AE (2000)
[ ] A Troll in Central Park (1994)

Note: Once again, I wasn't watching G-rated movies in the '90s. We did have a lot of Happy Meal toys from the later "Land Before Time" movies when the boys were little, though I don't think they actually ever saw any of those movies.

[ ] The Adventures of Mark Twain (1986)
[ ] Chicken Run (2000): It's in the house, and I've been a huge Wallace & Gromit fan for ages, but the boys never wanted to watch it, so it's sat unwatched.
[X] Corpse Bride (2005)
[ ] James and the Giant Peach (1996)
[ ] The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
[X] Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005): And the shorts; the third of which I saw in an honest-to-dog theater as a first run movie, in some Film Forum animation program.
[X] Coraline (2009)

[ ] Antz (1998)
[X] Bee Movie (2007)
[ ] Happy Feet (2006)
[ ] Ice Age (2002)
[X] Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006)
[X] Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009); I've seen about three hours of Ice Age movies, and I'm pretty sure it was #2 and #3, but I could be mistaken.
[ ] Kung Fu Panda (2008)
[ ] Madagascar (2005)
[O] Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008)
[ ] Monster House (2006)
[X] Over the Hedge (2006)
[X] The Polar Express (2004)
[X] Robots (2005); Not as bad as it might be, but pretty bad.
[ ] A Shark's Tale (2004)
[ ] Shrek (2001)
[ ] Shrek 2 (2004)
[ ] Shrek The Third (2007)
[ ] Shrek Forever After (2010); I've seen maybe half an hour total from all four Shrek movies, and that was too much.
[X] Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)

[ ] Arabian Knight (aka The Thief and the Cobbler) (1995)
[X] The Last Unicorn (1982)
[ ] Light Years (1988)
[X] The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
[ ] Persepolis (2007)
[X] Waltz With Bashir (2008)
[X] Watership Down (1978)
[ ] When the Wind Blows (1988)
[ ] Wonderful Days (2003)
[X] Yellow Submarine (1968)

[X] The Cat Returns (2002)
[ ] Grave of the Fireflies (1988); I should, I know. But when it comes time to pick a movie to watch, "the one about Hiroshima" always ends up at the bottom of the list.
[X] Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
[X] Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
[X] Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
[X] Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
[X] My Neighbors The Yamadas (1999)
[X] My Neighbor Totoro (1993)
[X] Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
[ ] Only Yesterday (1991)
[X] Pom Poko (Tanuki War) (1994); Probably my older son's favorite Ghibli movie; it might be mine as well.
[X] Porco Rosso (1992)
[X] Princess Mononoke (1999)
[X] Spirited Away (2002)
[X] Whisper of the Heart (1995)
[X] Ponyo (2009)

[ ] Millennium Actress (2001)
[ ] Paprika (2006)
[ ] Perfect Blue (1999)
[ ] Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

[ ] She and Her Cat (1999)
[ ] Voices of a Distant Star (2001)
[ ] The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004)
[ ] 5 Centimeters per Second (2007)

[X] Akira (1989); Saw it in NYC way back when, have owned it on bootleg VHS, bootleg DVD, regular DVD, and fancy DVD; and still listen to the soundtrack semi-regularly. KANEDAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!
[ ] Angel's Egg (1985)
[ ] Appleseed (2004)
[ ] Appleseed: Ex Machina (2007)
[ ] Arcadia of My Youth (U.S. Title - Vengeance of the Space Pirate) (1982)
[ ] Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2003)
[ ] The Dagger of Kamui (U.S. Title - Revenge of the Ninja Warrior) (1985)
[ ] Dirty Pair: Project Eden (1987)
[ ] End of Evangelion (1997)
[ ] Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone (2007)
[ ] Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance (2009)
[X] Fist of the North Star (1986)
[ ] Galaxy Express 999 (1979)
[ ] Ghost in the Shell (1996)
[ ] Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)
[ ] The Girl Who Lept Through Time (2006)
[ ] Lensman (1984)
[ ] Macross: Do You Remember Love (U.S. Title - Clash of the Bionoids) (1984)
[ ] Memories (1995)
[ ] Metropolis (2001)
[ ] Neo-Tokyo (1986)
[ ] Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)
[ ] Ninja Scroll (1993)
[ ] Patlabor the Movie (1989)
[ ] The Professional: Golgo 13 (1983)
[ ] Project A-ko (1986)
[ ] Robot Carnival (1987)
[ ] Robotech: The Shadow Chronicle (2006)
[ ] Silent Möbius (1991)
[ ] The Sky Crawlers (2008)
[ ] Space Adventure Cobra (1982)
[ ] Steamboy (2004); I own it but haven't seen it.
[ ] Sword of the Stranger (2007)
[ ] Unico and the Island of Magic (1983)
[ ] Urotsukidoji: The Movie (1987)
[ ] Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer (1984)
[ ] Urusei Yatsura: Only You (1982)
[ ] Vampire Hunter D (1985)
[ ] Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust (2000)
[ ] Wings of Honneamise: Royal Space Force (1987)

[ ] American Pop (1981)
[ ] The Animatrix (2003)
[ ] Beavis & Butthead Do America (1996).
[ ] Cool World (1992)
[ ] Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)
[ ] Final Fantasy: Advent Children (2005)
[ ] Fire & Ice (1983)
[X] Fritz the Cat (1972)
[ ] Halo Legends (2009)
[X] Heavy Metal (1981); It's cheesy, but it's the cheeziness of my youth.
[ ] Heavy Metal 2000 (2000)
[ ] Hey Good Lookin' (1982)
[ ] Lady Death (2004)
[ ] A Scanner Darkly (2006)
[X] Sita Sings the Blues
[X] South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
[ ] Street Fight (Coonskin) (1975)
[ ] Waking Life (2001)

[ ] The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)
[ ] Animal Farm (1954)
[X] Animalympics (1980); I saw this way too many time in the early '80s.
[ ] Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon The Movie (2007)
[ ] Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)
[ ] Batman: Gotham Knight (2008)
[ ] Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
[ ] The Brave Little Toaster (1988)
[ ] Bravestarr: The Movie (1988)
[ ] Cats Don't Dance (1997)
[ ] Care Bears: The Movie (1985)
[ ] Charlotte's Web (1973)
[ ] Fern Gully (1992)
[ ] G.I. Joe: The Movie (1987)
[ ] Gobots: Battle of the Rock Lords (1986)
[ ] Green Lantern: First Flight (2009)
[ ] He-Man & She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword (1985)
[X] The Hobbit (1977)
[ ] The Iron Giant (1999); Another movie I own and intend to watch someday, but the boys never wanted to.
[ ] Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010)
[ ] Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)
[X] Lord of the Rings (1978)
[ ] Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1992)
[ ] My Little Pony: The Movie (1986)
[X] Pink Floyd's The Wall (1982)
[ ] The Prince of Egypt (1998)
[ ] Powerpuff Girls: The Movie (2002)
[ ] Quest For Camelot (1999)
[ ] Ringing Bell (1978)
[ ] The Road to El Dorado (2000)
[ ] Shinbone Alley (1971)
[ ] Space Jam (1996)
[ ] Starchaser: The Legend of Orin (1985)
[ ] Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009)
[ ] Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010)
[ ] Superman: Doomsday (2007)
[ ] The Swan Princess (1994)
[X] Transformers: The Movie (1986)
[ ] Wizards (1977)
[X] Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
[ ] Wonder Woman (2009)
[ ] Balto (1995)
[ ] Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002)

Far too many movies, of which I've seen only a few clumps. It proves nothing, but it gives me a post that isn't Book-A-Day, which counts as a win in my book.

Book-A-Day 2010 # 293 (11/23) -- The Alchemist by Coelho

There are many things that annoy me -- I'm sure we all have our lists -- but near the top is when the people who actually do the work don't get the credit. For example, let's take this book here. There is a novel called The Alchemist, which was written by Paulo Coehlo. It's somewhat popular, having sold millions of copies around the world in dozens of languages over the past decade or two. It's kind of a big deal.

But the book I have here -- despite having "Paulo Coleho" and "
The Alchemist" on it in big letters -- is not that novel, as the discreet "A Graphic Novel" is meant to indicate. This is a graphic novel based on that Coelho novel, and, though it says he "reviewed" it, he didn't actually either write the script or draw the pictures, the two most important things that go into creating a graphic novel. [1] This particular rendering of The Alchemist was adapted and scripted by Derek Ruiz, with art by Daniel Sampere ("and others," the book says, without really explaining what that means).

I'm pretty sure Ruiz and Sampere wouldn't care that I'm annoyed on their behalf, but it's not entirely about them -- consumer packaging should be clear about the contents of a package, and having
The Alchemist
A Graphic Novel
Paulo Coelho
on a book actually by Derek Ruiz and Daniel Sampere is just as misleading as "90% fat-free." I may not be able to affect anything, but I can certainly complain whenever I see misleading packaging.

But what about the book itself? Well, it's OK. I haven't read the originalThe Alchemist, but I'm very familiar with the genre -- this is yet another "the world secretly wants you to be happy and so follow your true path, everything will turn out just fine" books. This one is fiction, but I'm sure you all can think of your favorite fictional examples (all of those "affirmations" books, various evangelical "gospel of wealth stuff , The Celestine Prophecy, and so on).

In this particular case, the Andalusian shepherd boy Santiago quit his studies to become a priest because he wanted to travel -- and, I suppose, tromping around the same hillsides with a flock of sheep qualified, and rising in the ranks of the Catholic Church to someday travel regularly to Rome and elsewhere would not -- but, one day, runs into a guy who calls himself the King of Salem [3], who gives him a woo-woo story and sends him off to see the Pyramids.

Santiago is the usual friendly, open-hearted, malleable young lump of clay hero of stories like this, so he sets off on a journey signposted by people Coelho doesn't bother to give names to (the Merchant, the Thief, the Other Merchant, the General, the Leader of the Oasis, the English Man, and the titular Alchemist), who each teach Santiago a little something, then swat his butt and set him off to the next person. In the end, Santiago achieves...well, not enlightenment, which is what I was expecting, but a big chest full of jewels and money. (Which is, in our fallen world, vastly more important.)

The whole thing is all very nice and nonthreatening and nondenominational -- Coelho carefully has really really nice Christians and Muslims, so as not to offend anyone -- and teaches the kind of lesson that everyone deeply wants to believe, namely that if you are friendly and nice and follow your dreams, you'll find that there's a big pot of money you can take somewhere really convenient to your own wheelbarrow. It's a sweet and naive vision of the world, of the kind that's eternally popular.

Turning that story into a graphic novel makes it that much easier to read and fills the pages with pretty pictures. I generally don't equate comics with lower reading levels, but The Alchemist is all but begging me to do so. It's exactly the sort of thing that I'd expect to be a massive international bestseller: a fine example of pandering to a common wish of all humanity. The words are all pleasant, and the pictures all look very nice, but the story is no better than it should be.

[1] And I suspect that one, and possibly several people at Coelho's original publisher "reviewed" the Alchemist novel before it was originally published, and I further suspect that he'd have been quite annoyed himself if one of their names was on the cover instead of his.

[2] Here called a Personal Legend.

[3] Yes, yes. It's always funny when someone else appropriates a bit of your cultural heritage in a ham-handed way. I only wish they did it more often.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Monday, November 22, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 292 (11/22) -- The Bird of the River by Kage Baker

Some books are bittersweet for external reasons: The Bird of the River, coming six months after Kage Baker's untimely death, is particularly sad, as it will have to stand for all of the novels and stories that she would have written if she'd had the twenty or so more years that, if this were at all a just universe, she would have had. But this is not a just universe, of course -- that's why we have fiction in the first place.

The Bird of the River is set in the same world as Baker's fantasy novels The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag, but it's not directly connected to either of them. (It does, though, take place at about the same point in time -- Baker's fantasy world has plenty of interesting things happening in it, but none of them concern Dark Lords or the Fate of the World, which is all to the good.) It's doesn't fit into any of the major subgenres, actually -- there's no epic plot, it's clearly not in our world, it doesn't take place in a city of any kind, the story doesn't focus on the intrigues of the aristocracy, there are no vampires or werewolves, it's not steampunk or alternate anything. It's a mildly picaresque novel and a bildungsroman, but nothing more focus-grouped and precisely targeted than that; it's the story of one girl, and of how she came to realize that she's actually a young woman.

Eliss and Alder are sister and brother in their early teens; their fathers are different (and both long gone), but their common mother is the prematurely broken-down addict Falena, who used to be a deep-water diver but has been dependent on a sequence of "uncles" for some time now. Eliss is sure her mother can go back to being strong and independent -- and would love some stability, and regular meals, in her life. So she pushes Falena to take a job as diver on the river maintenance barge The Bird of the River.

That doesn't work out well for Falena, but Eliss quickly finds a position on the boat: her sharp eyes and wits make her a valued lookout, and she comes to spend most of her time up at the top of the mast, looking out for the snags that it's the Bird's job to clear from the river. Alder also begins to find a place for himself in the world, though that's complicated by his heritage -- he's one-half Yendri, a green-skinned humanoid race of pacifists that lives in the forests, and there's the usual tension between different groups of people that live close to each other. (There are "demons" as well -- given that this is a fantasy novel, I'm a bit tentative on this point, but they seem to just be another, not particularly supernatural, intelligent humanoid race with a tendency towards banditry and other antisocial activities.)

The Bird of the River is a slow-moving novel, much like the river the boat of the same name traverses: it's made up of episodes and moments rather than being driven by a strong central plot. But that's entirely appropriate for the story of year in which a young woman finds a job she's good at, people she fits in with, and, even, maybe, a young man she can love for a long time (in the person of Krelan, who joins the Bird on a mission to find the head of a murdered nobleman). Baker makes each of those episodes precise and true, like a gem in a necklace or the sun glinting on a vast river on a summer day. This novel isn't much like her "Company" novels in concept, but it has that series's willingness to wander off on tangents and explore side channels when those are the most interesting things at hand, and it has Baker's wonderful straightforward voice, with a tone that implies it knows so much about the world, but still has an essential optimism that everything can work out all right in the end.

Perhaps there's another Baker novel still sitting in manuscript -- I doubt I could be that lucky, but I thought Not Less Than Gods (Book-A-Day #30) was her last book, and I was happily wrong then, so I'll leave open the chance that I could be wrong again -- but, even if that's not the case, The Bird of the River is a fine send-off for a great writer: a journey begun but not ended, in a world with danger but also great possibilities, and a woman ready to live life on her own terms. Would that we all could be as happy as Eliss; would that we all could be the main characters of a Kage Baker story.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/20

Another week has passed, with six whole mail days, that brought me a massive stack of books, totalling...two. Not that I'm complaining, mind you: free books are free books, and even one is a fine thing. But it does make for a meager post. However, I can stretch it out slightly by talking about a book I actually paid money for, and so I'll jump into that one first:

The Mark Twain odds-and-sods collection Who Is Mark Twain? [1] -- which I reviewed as Book-A-Day # 9, way back in February -- teased the idea of a major Autobiography of Twain, written (actually dictated, mostly) in 1906, near the end of his life, and embargoed for publication for a full century after his death. I knew Twain died in 1910, and I'm able to do simple math, so I asked the obvious question there: so where is this Autobiography?

Well, it's here, or at least the first volume of three is. The University of California Press published Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 earlier this month, and I was happy to see that it's hit -- or should I say "was placed," since that's how the editors refer to the list? -- the New York Times bestseller list this Sunday, in a rare feat for an author dead for a hundred years. I had to get a copy for myself, and I was pretty sure that I'm not on UCP's press list. (I'd be thrilled to be proved wrong, though -- I'm happy to be on anyone's press list.)

So, on Tuesday, I mustered my best deal-making accouterments -- in honor of the all-American hucksterism of Twain, and to be detailed slightly later -- and made my way to my local Borders on the way home from work. After a bit of searching -- I found one copy on an end-of-aisle display unit, but it was the end facing towards the side wall of the store -- I grabbed the Twain Autobiography and went to buy it. One coupon (33% off), several Borders Bucks ($15, including $10 that were a special "use them within a week or lose them" offer), and the usual Borders Rewards additional 10% off later, I walked out with the Autobiography for the princely sum of $8.12. (An impressive discount from the list price of $34.95.)

I've only just started poking at the Autobiography -- it's huge, so I'll have to read it at home rather than while commuting -- but it's already impressed me with its scholarly apparatus and clearly deep commitment to textual accuracy and transparency. I'm looking forward to spending many hours reading rediscovered Twain very soon.

Oh, and the consumer note: there are a lot of books titled something like "Autobiography of Mark Twain," since he wrote reams of autobiographical stuff, and chunks of this specific Autobiography have been published in various forms over the last century. But this new series is complete in a way those earlier books couldn't be, and benefits from a century of Twain scholarship and work -- so look for the big hardcover with Twain emerging from darkness.

(As far as I've seen, there's no word as to when we can expect Volume Two -- though I don't mind, since I still need to read this one.)

To move to the actual mail, I did get one book that's almost as physically massive as the Twain Autobiography -- and this is commercial fiction, so even if the trim size is slightly smaller, it has more than a hundred pages more in the same bulk. That book is Towers of Midnight, the thirteenth and penultimate book in the massively popular "Wheel of Time" epic fantasy series, started by Robert Jordan twenty years ago and now being completed by Brandon Sanderson from his extensive notes. Towers was published by Tor at the beginning of this month, so I was clearly part of the second wave of publicity outreach. And that makes a lot of sense, since I haven't read any of the previous dozen books, so I'm not likely to dive into this one any time soon. If you, like me, haven't read this series yet, don't start here -- the first book is The Eye of the World.

The second book I saw this week, though, is something I am planning to read soon, since I did enjoy the previous book: Miss Don't Touch Me 2, like its predecessor from the French team Hubert and Kerascoet. (Miss Don't Touch Me, the original, was Book-A-Day #233.) This book collects the third and fourth French albums, and continues the adventures of Blanche, a young Frenchwoman of the 1920s who found herself in a high-level Paris brothel (as the "English maid," the no-sex dominatrix of the establishment) after the murder of her sister by a serial killer. The first book was both smart and exciting, with a mystery/thriller plot that bowed to logic and realism but still provided a nearly-happy ending for Blanche, and I hope that this second volume is equally strong. NBM will publish it in January.

[1] Twain is one of the very few writers whose archives are still producing interesting, vital work a century after his death; I'll leave the explanation as to why to the experts.