Sunday, December 01, 2013

Read in November

I went straight from the structure of October (which became Starktober around here) to first a family vacation and then a work conference, so reading fell off a lot this past month. Of course, the real lesson is more complicated: like everyone else, I'm busier and have more distractions than I'd like, so I need to prioritize the things I really want to do. When I do prioritize reading and writing about books, that happens regularly -- when I don't, it doesn't.

This was a "don't" month, then. But here's what I did read, and perhaps something will seem interesting to some of you:

Lisa Lutz, The Last Word (11/2)

This is the sixth and potentially final -- my suspicion is that Lutz thinks the series is over, but her publisher hopes to persuade her otherwise, so the book itself doesn't quite promise there will be no more books -- novel in the series of seriocomic private-eye books about Isabel Spellman and her complicated, difficult family. I've written about the series before in round-ups in November of 2012 (the first book) and then January (books 2 and 3) and February (books 4 and 5) of this year. It's a really good mystery series that I haven't wanted to dissect here: they each work well as individual novels and move this family forward along a larger plot, which is a remarkable achievement to be celebrated. If Lutz does manage to quite the series here -- and intended to -- it will be something nearly unique: a series that didn't outstay its welcome, didn't descend into self-indulgence, didn't fall into the twin faults of massive woe or massive joy, and did tell a great story. I recommend these books really highly; start at the beginning with The Spellman Files.

Gahan Wilson Sunday Comics (11/14)

For two or three years in the mid-70s -- the back cover says 1972-1974, the afterword by Gary Groth says March 3, 1974 to June 5, 1977 -- Gahan Wilson created a weekly Sunday comic, for his then-hometown paper The Boston Globe and syndicated at least somewhat by The Register and Tribune Syndicate. And now all of those strips have been collected in one place, surprising a lot of Wilson fans who had no idea he ever did such a thing.

There's no continuing story, and only a handful of "continuing characters" -- really just stock figures for Wilson's gags. Sunday Comics was a collection of gags, something between a place to use the single panels that magazine editors rejected and a place to work out the ideas that weren't right for those magazine clients in the first place. Some of the weekly "strips" had a vague theme -- there are a number of holiday-themed installments, for example -- and there were recurring "features," such as the space-themed "Future Funnies" and the serial-villain-looking "The Creep," but Sunday Comics was essentially just a collection of gags. Those gags are all Wilson, though not high-powered Wilson; he clearly had to work more obviously and less cruelly to fit into newspapers -- Wilson's best work is more dark and creepy than he's ever allowed to get here.

So this is a diversion, and interesting sidebar to Wilson's main career. It's mostly for Wilson fans -- but I am one, so I'm thrilled to see it, even if I was surprised to know it ever existed.

Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two (11/19)

September is no longer the heartless child who first visited fairyland (and saved it from an unpleasant ruler) in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, or even the year-older person who returned in The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There to fix a problem she didn't know she caused. This third time out, she's solidly a teenager, growing up in a Kansas where the distant War is possibly rumbling to an end and learning to drive an old Model A Ford borrowed from a neighbor.

One might assume that this is the third book of a trilogy -- by the end of this book, September has now seen fairyland from all around, beneath, and above, which sounds final, and growing up has generally proved to be a fatal to journeys to fairyland. But Valente took aim at that latter assumption in the last book, and Soared is definitely not the last story about September. (I can say that much without without getting into the details of the end of this book.)

Unfortunately, I didn't find Soared as vital and enthralling as the first two books. I don't know if that's due to my own jadedness, or if Valente is writing a different kind of story this time out, or if there's some other reason. But I enjoyed Soared without loving it the way I did its predecessors. Whether people more female and substantially younger -- the true audience for this book -- will feel anything like the same way is a question I can't answer.

Alina Simone, Note to Self (11/22)

Simone is an excellent musician (now retired, I think) who has previously written the very good collection of memoir essays You Must Go and Win, which explored a lot of the aspects of her interesting life: the rock 'n' roll dream and the horrible apartments that show up on the way there, her ancestry in Ukraine and Russia, the perils of an examined life. Note to Self is her first novel, about a woman in her late '30s who's addicted to the Internet -- clicking random links for hours on end, checking news and social media and Craigslist, dreaming ideas of what to do with her life and never following through.

Note to Self is the story of what happens to that woman, Anna, when she loses the dead-end "cubicle serf" job at a law firm that she thought she hated, and tries to move on to something better. Like so many people, she decides she wants to make art, which pushes her to meet a filmmaker, and that reverberates through other parts of her life as well. Simone's voice is smart and quick and witty, and every page of Note to Self is a joy to read. I thought the ending was a bit rushed and didn't entirely fix the problems that the book had set up, but it's a first novel -- and a very assured and promising one at that.

Lemony Snicket, "When Did You See Her Last?" (11/25)

Snicket, in case you don't know, is the YA-writing pseudonym of Daniel Handler (whose first novel The Basic Eight I will continue praising until every last person in the world has read it) and whose first major work was the excellent, very dark, and surprisingly popular "Series of Unfortunate Events," thirteen books in which things went very wrong for three orphan children. "Snicket" didn't produce any novels for several years, but has returned with a four-book series called "All the Wrong Questions," about Snicket's own youth -- the "author" was the narrator of the first series, and at least a minor character as well.

The first book of All the Wrong Questions was "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" and this now is the second: young Snicket, just shy of thirteen, is still in the decaying ex-coastal town of Stain'd-by-the-Sea, still working for his incompetent, distracted, self-obsessed "mentor" for their mysterious organization of interlopers and busybodies, and still -- as he tells us in his narrative voice, years later -- following up the wrong leads and missing the point. The matter of this series comes from the last few generations of juvenile horror -- pre-Goosebumps, I think, with John Bellairs as a major touchstone -- but the tone and style of writing is straight out of the pure adult PI tradition, with requisite Chandlerisms and femmes fatal not yet old enough to drive.

It's a mystery, so much of the enjoyment is seeing the details first come out and then fall into place, and I won't spoil that. Snicket/Handler is still an incredibly engaging writer, by turns deviously tricky and emotionally direct, and this series is at least as good as "Unfortunate Events" was.

Next month: who knows? I'm sure I'll manage to read something, though.

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