Sunday, November 30, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #334: The Bushwhacked Piano by Thomas McGuane

In literary fiction, there's a strong tradition of the magnificent asshole: the guy so charismatic and interesting that the reader mostly ignores that he's an absolutely horrible human being. Think Randle McMurphy, Horse Badorties, Ignatius Reilly -- for the length of a book we're on his side as he battles regular society, or the Man, or just whatever happens to be in the way, even if we'd go out of our way to avoid anyone half that annoying in regular life. [1]

The trend was most pronounced in the twentieth century -- Faulker had a couple of doozies, and Kerouac rarely wrote about anything but -- though there had been similar characters back at least as far as Prince Hal and Falstaff. The essential version, though, is usually post-modern, and placed in solid opposition to the world of squares and three-piece suits and 9-to-5 jobs and all the usual things to rebel against. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses, and sometimes it's not clear what happened -- the important things are that he's magnificent, he's an asshole, and that he fights.

Nicholas Payne is a fine member of that august company: he's larger than life, utterly insufferable, and any reader's enjoyment of the book he dominates will be entirely determined by the ability to stomach this self-important prick. To be honest, it took me a while to warm to him -- I was expecting something very different from Payne's author, Thomas McGuane, who I'd pigeonholed as a writer of rural semi-humorous he-man stories, like a somewhat more domesticated Hemingway who stuck closer to Michigan. That pigeonhole was based entirely on supposition and inference, though, and it just shows how badly expectations can go wrong -- I'd had the completely wrong image of this writer in my head for a good thirty years.

Payne louchely saunters through the American landscape of about 1969-1970 in McGuane's second novel, The Bushwhacked Piano -- the title comes from the first page, where he shoots a neighbor's piano at the age of ten or so, nearly twenty years before the action of the novel. He pursues the local beauty, Ann Fitzgerald; he works on a one-armed man's ill-conceived plan to build large bat-houses all across the country to eliminate mosquitoes; he ruminates on cars and hunting and fishing and other manly pursuits; he does any damn thing he wants to, the less sensible and reasonable the better. He's also the closest thing to a rounded character in the book -- everyone else is a type at best, a collection of twitches at worst, there to bounce off Payne and show various aspects of his character.

McGuane tells this story in a high-octane, look-ma-I'm-writing style, as filtered through heartland America -- razor-sharp transitions between scenes or ideas or characters, arch dialogue and narration that talks around the events, and a focus on cars and women and machismo. The voice is laconic and quietly authoritative, so it can take a while to realize just what that voice is telling you -- like John Wayne narrating a Hunter Thompson audiobook.

Those are the two things that make up The Bushwhacked Piano: the character of Nicholas Payne, doing every last thing that comes into his head, and the voice of Thomas McGuane, telling us about Payne as if he wanted to cram in every thought he ever had about America or men or life or society along the way. It's not a book of plot, and the other characters won't engage you for a second. It's not quite a counterculture novel -- Payne has one speech quite clearly against hippies -- but it's in that vein, and from that era: a barbaric yawp against a world that no longer made sense. If you can get into its groove, it can be a very funny book -- McGuane's writing is supple and quicksilver, flicking from topic to topic like carp in a pond -- and Payne is indeed magnificent despite (or because) of being an asshole.

[1] I won't state absolutely that there's no such thing as a female magnificent asshole -- I hope someone will point me to one -- but I can't think of any, and the type is heavily coded male.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #333: The Compleat Ankh-Morpork City Guide by Terry Pratchett & the Discworld Emporium

Here's a question: is it easier or harder to map a city that doesn't exist?

You want to say "easier," of course -- it's the obvious response. But the answer probably is more dependent on that word "exist," and that's much more of a continuum than it seems to be at first. Mohenjo-daro doesn't exist. 18th century London doesn't exist. And Ankh-Morpork doesn't exist. But all three have definite landmarks that the map-maker has to take into account, and all three have a certain number of interested parties who will note strongly if a map is wrong by their lights.

There have been previous attempts to map Terry Patchett's great fictional city of Ankh-Morpork, including a standalone map as part of a series about notable places on Pratchett's Discworld (including Lancre, the land of DEATH, and a large map of the Disc itself). But I suspect The Compleat Ankh-Morpork City Guide will be the definitive one from this point forward: it's large and detailed, and it nails down this fake city as tightly as any real one.

The City Guide is a package: inside an outer portfolio sit a 128-page hardcover book, the Guide proper, and a gigantic double-sided map, suitable for framing or tacking onto a wall or just trying to look at if your arms are long enough to hold it. Like all of the best fake non-fiction, it purports to be an artifact from the Disc itself, a book to be used by tourists, commercial travelers, and anyone else making a first journey to that world's largest and most vibrant city.

The book is laid out like an old-fashioned tourist's guide, covering inns and hotels, taverns and restaurants, laws and cultural notes, the religious and commercial life of the city, plus listings of streets and some shorter sections about opportunities for fun and other activities. It's well-illustrated throughout, is laid out in two or three columns, depending on the content of each particular section, and is printed on a yellowish-brown paper to give the impression of an already aged book. The map has the city within the walls on one side, with all major roads and points of interest labeled, while the other side has a more pictorial representation of the city and suburbs from the air, with fewer features pointed out.

There are plenty of real-world cities that don't have a guide with this much time and effort put into it; the City Guide is full of sly wit and carefully hidden references to the events of many of Pratchett's novels. It is obviously only a book for fans, but there are a lot of fans of this particular city. And it's also, incidentally, a testament to what physical printing can do -- an iPad app is promised, but it would be difficult to be as impressive as a gigantic map.

The City Guide is credited to Pratchett and "the Discworld Emporium," which is made up of four people (Isobel Pearson, Rob Voyce, Bernard Pearson, and Ian Mitchell). Presumably, one or more of them drew the map, but the book isn't clear on who that was -- though it does credit "additional illustrations by Peter Dennis," but not which illustrations those are. But, then, your real-world travel guides have similarly vague credits; Ankh-Morpork is just following in a long and hallowed tradition.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, November 28, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #332: Cypher by Brad Teare

Dream logic can be an easy out for a story, a way to have anything happen and events flow without any logical sequence. When it works well, though, it gives a sense of connection, as if that work depicts a world more real than our own, a template from which we're only a fuzzy copy.

I won't claim that Brad Teare's Cypher -- originally published as comics in the early '90s and collected in a book in 1997 -- reaches that level, but it does use dream logic effectively and consistently, telling stories about its nameless brush-headed protagonist that hang together without making much logical sense or featuring anything in the way of explainable plots.

We never learn that guy's name -- my theory is that he is "Cypher" -- but we see him run through ten named stories, some which run into each other and some of which have subtler connections. None of them make direct linear sense: they're all bizarre, with our hero either explicitly going into dreams (though a job in a sensory-deprivation tank) or just being caught up in strange events and different worlds.

Teare has -- or had, in the mid-90s -- a stark, scratchboard or woodcut art style, stark black and white with precise little lines like knives. That helps sell these stories: the feel solid and grounded, as if they're carved, even as ridiculous things are happening. Cypher is a weird little book of comics, and it seems to be Teare's only comics work to date -- he's a painter these days. But, if you happen to come across it, it's amusingly quirky and attractively drawn.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #331: Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki

It might seem strange to feature a book about doomed WWII Japanese soldiers in Papua New Guinea on such a quintessentially American (and happy) day as Thanksgiving, but bear with me. Maybe it's not as odd as it seems.

After all, isn't one of the major things we're always told to be thankful for -- by those fatuous politicians and media types, self-important and drunk on their own assumed grandeur -- some windy blather about freedom and honor and courage, as bought by the blood of patriots? (Pardon me if I momentarily channel one of those idiots.) Every country has some version of that dangerously self-important myth, some set of lies they tell themselves to pretend that their nation is better and stronger and more special than anyone else. And so I have a book today that's all about those lies, and the places they lead -- perhaps to remind us to be thankful about real things in the real world, not abstractions and pretense.

Shigeru Mizuki is one of the longest-working and best-loved manga-ka in Japan, though very little of his work has made it into English translation. Most of his work seems to be very specifically Japanese, retellings of folktales about yokai (spirits or demons or ghosts or fairies, depending on the story and who you ask) from the past fifty or so years that form a large part of his nation's collective image of itself and its history. But, like so many other working artists, he's turned his attention to other things: a history of his time in WWII, a biography of Hitler, and this book, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths.

This is not Mizuki's story, but it's deeply influenced by that story and holds closely to what really happened to Mizuki and his fellow soldiers on the island of New Britain in 1943. A battalion of soldiers is detached from the main body -- headquartered at Rabaul on the north-east coast -- and sent to hold and defend Baien, on the southern coast. American troops are assumed to be on their way, in large numbers. The Japanese battalion is poorly provisioned, poorly supplied, poorly led -- on top of the usual then-current mania for physical punishments of soldiers for tiny infractions (or for nothing) and for endless psychological torment. And it's soon clear that they have no way out.

That Japanese army was a place was failure was unthinkable, where even a strategic retreat was against every bit of their code of duty and honor. And so that battalion was essentially ordered to Baien to die, which became clear once the Americans did attack. Suicide attacks were become the norm in that army, and so this battalion would have the glorious honor of dying in one themselves.

Mizuki tells this story with a large cast, from the functionaries back at HQ to the battalion commander, down through the NCOs to a large number of ordinary soldiers. (There's three pages of faces and names up front, to tell us who all of these people are -- more graphic novels could do with something like that.) We come to know these men as individuals, and then see their lives thrown away pointlessly.

Mizuki's own experience was very similar, though -- as you might guess -- he didn't actually die on the island of New Britain in 1943. Instead, he lost an arm, and was captured as a POW -- both of which significantly contributed to his survival. (Though he does note, in his afterword, that suicide attacks like this are never 100% -- in the actual situation that inspired the book, eighty men out of a full battalion strength of five hundred lived through that attack, one way or another.)

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is a powerful, important work -- as important to understanding the second world war as Tardi's It Was the War of the Trenches is to the first. It's strongly drawn, with a strong wistful, melancholy tone threaded through it, contrasting to the matter-of-fact, down-to-earth daily lives of the soldiers. Today, I'm thankful that books like these exist, and that strong voices like Shigeru Mizuki survived the war to make them -- and that he still lives today, to keep that same message alive.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #330: Escape From "Special" by Miss Lasko-Gross

Melissa Gross didn't grow up easy: she was a smart, opinionated, willful kid with an unbreakable spirit and a burning desire to know the reasons behind everything. Luckily, she seems to have had the kind of parents who could handle her -- slightly indulgent, slightly distant, willing to let her do more or less what she wanted and not burden her with too many expectations. But other kids were crueler, as they always are, and she didn't mesh well with other authority figures at school and temple and camp.

Of course, Melissa Gross isn't real: she's the main character of Escape from "Special". Or maybe she is: author Miss Lasko-Gross's real name is Melissa Anne Lasko Gross, and this graphic novel is generally described as semi-autobiographical. Or maybe the truth is somewhere in between, as Lasko-Gross signposts in the first few pages of this book: this is a story about growing up and about memory, about the things you can remember from childhood and how they turned you into the person you are. Melissa Gross isn't quite Miss Lasko-Gross, but the depicted girl is a version of the adult creator -- how she remembers herself, how she wishes she was, how she thinks she probably was, how things might have, how it makes a better story than the more complicated and tedious reality.

Escape From "Special" was Lasko-Gross's first book, published in 2006. Three years later, she continued the story with A Mess of Everything, which continued young Melissa's life through even more turbulent high school years. But this book has turbulence enough -- Melissa was a ball of undirected tension and energy, reflexively pushing against all limits and constraints just because they were there. Lasko-Gross shows us that energy by telling the story of nearly ten years of life through dozens of short stories, some only a page long, each a vignette or moment in young Melissa's life. Lasko-Gross tells these stories in a palette of greys -- perhaps ironically, since Melissa was so adamant about wanting to know exactly how things were and had little tolerance for ambiguity and other people's opinions -- with the young Melissa raging and stalking through the middle of all of them.

Melissa must have been a tough kid to know or like; even assuming that Lasko-Gross is exaggerating a bit for dramatic effect, she was a loudmouthed, relentlessly contrarian grade-schooler with unpopular habits and ideas and plans. But we were all that kid, at least in our own heads, and Lasko-Gross is excellent at showing all of the ways that '80s culture rubbed this one girl raw, and how she struck back at it. Melissa Gross got herself into the "special" school of the title, and then got herself out of it, and the story of how she did that -- and what happened to this one very square peg along the way -- is engrossing and thrilling.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #329: The World of George Price

Note: I've once again gotten confused in my counting, and hit both 264 and 267 twice -- must have been a bad week. So the count skips 327 and 328 to get back to the correct number. The Management regrets the inconvenience.

I am half-convinced that the New Yorker, among its many other obscure and abstruse rules, has written down somewhere a dictum to the effect that "the Magazine must always have a staff cartoonist with the Christian name George, whose work draws in large part on the martial foibles and physical flotsam of the working classes." How else to explain how George Price was followed by George Booth? (With a decade or so of overlap -- a blisteringly quick apprenticeship for such a hidebound operation as the New Yorker.)

I'm more familiar with the work of Booth, who still cartoons for the magazine -- I covered a mid-eighties career retrospective just a couple of weeks ago -- but Price did much the same thing, in his own idiom, for more than sixty years. And Price's mature style is particularly striking, all angles and carefully defined spaces through what looks like one continuous precise line.

The World of George Price is a 1988 collection of the best of Price's work -- as the subtitle says, it celebrates fifty-five years of his cartoons, mostly for the New Yorker, where he first placed work in 1931. Unfortunately, whoever edited this -- Peter Weed or one of his minions at Beaufort Books -- didn't place the cartoons in chronological or any other clear order. This is doubly unfortunate because Price had three very distinct art styles over the course of his life, and the subject matter of his drawings also saw some evolution over his long tenure.

First up was a rounded, more illustrative line, which he debuted with in 1931 -- though his faces were always distinct, with incomplete ovals containing the eyes. The middle years saw his line simplify and get a lot straighter, and the addition of large areas of gray to define spaces. And then the gray receded as the line got even more precise and straight. (This is my supposition, which may be wrong -- again, the book doesn't date any of its cartoons.

Despite what I said up top, Price didn't have Booth's mania for a few standard cartoon set-ups: this collection ranges broadly, with lots of squabbling couples, quizzical moments in offices and other workplaces, and plenty of wordplay. Price came from the prime era of the New Yorker (and of the gag cartoon), and his work is always clearly funny, rarely haring off into oddity the way Booth did later. But Price's work does have a lot of those couples in very closely observed rooms, fully of nick-nacks and tchotchkes and glaring at each other -- you can clearly see the ground that Booth would obsessively dig into and make his own in the older cartoonist's work.

George Price's work has a remarkable breadth of art style and material -- perhaps less surprising when you consider again that this book collects work from more than half a century -- and he also serves as a transitional figure, from the New Yorker of Arno and Hokinson to the archer cartoons of the '80s and afterward. I find him dependably funny, if less quirky than an artist like Booth or Bruce Eric Kaplan -- and that more general humor probably means he comes across as funny to more people. Price isn't much talked about these days when great cartoonists are mentioned, which is a shame: his art was amazing three different ways, and his punchlines were inventive and smartly Zerigeist-y.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Book-A-Day Index Finally Updated

If anyone out there is having one of those pre-holiday weeks where there's not enough tasks to fill the time, I could suggest dipping into my Book-A-Day index, which has just been updated through yesterday's post. (Today's goes live in about half an hour.)

We're near the end of the year, so the index includes 328 posts that cover 354 books, with three errors of numbering thrown in without extra charge. No, no, don't bother to thank me.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #326: Undertow Vol. 1 by Orlando & Trakhanov

There's a tendency in comics towards the baroque -- to make things bigger and more complicated and full of stuff just for the heck of it. It led to Superman's Fortress of Solitude, "Days of Future Past," and most of what you can find in the Direct Market any given week. There's nothing wrong with that -- and, in a collaborative visual medium, you have to assume that everyone will want to contribute something, and so complexities will build up like lime in old pipes -- but it can make getting at the heart of a story difficult at times.

Undertow is an adventure series that I suspect will have at its heart the eventual rebirth of a great city-state fallen into corruption and decadence. And its initial focus is on a band of outlaws from that city-state, battling the forces of evil and making a better life for themselves in their own way and with their own rules. The fact that the city-state is Atlantis, and that all of the characters are water-breathing creatures living a couple of tens of thousands of years in our past, though -- that's where the complications start to come in.

We're thrown headlong into this very complicated world in the first collection, Undertow, Vol. 1: Boatman's Call, written by Steve Orlando and drawn by Artyom Trakhanov. (And I'll have to admit up front that I read this as a digital proof on a tablet, which I think didn't show Trakhanov's dark, moody art to best effect. So I'm going to assume that it's much better and more subtle than I could see -- I think it was, actually, from what I could squint at -- and mostly not talk about his work from here on.) Orlando throws a lot of characters at us, often without a lot of introduction, and it's not always clear who is who or what any of them have to do with each other. (This may have been clearer if I could see the art better.)

Our pseudo-central character is Ukinnu, the scion of a rich Atlantean family who joined the armed forces out of cussedness and the kind of old-fashioned virtue that's denigrated these days. But Orlando doesn't use him to show this world to the reader; he's around the edges of things and there for important events, but neither a major player nor a strong viewpoint. Redum Anshargal, the Nemo-esque head of the rebels and captain of the gigantic amphibious ship Deliverer, is a stronger character in that he does more, but what he wants -- besides the generic "show them all and make Atlantis revere him" -- isn't clear. There's some level of skulduggery on the Deliverer, and some even vaguer stuff back in Atlantis, among people who I often didn't recognize.

The main plot of this clutch of issues is an expedition onto the surface world by Redum, Ukinnu, and a few others: they seek the fabled Amphibian, an Atlantean born with the ability to breathe air. Apparently, the three-quarters of the Earth's surface covered with water doesn't provide quite enough space for Redum to find a place to settle away from Atlantis's single city, and he wants to breed in air-breathing abilities to the children of Deliverer, a strange and silly idea in more ways than I have have time to delineate. Since the touchstones of Undertow are complication and ideas borrowed from other stories, that quest is both dogged by an Atlantean hit team and jeopardized by the fact that the Amphibian has turned himself into a Kurtz-like figure among a human tribe. (It's not clear why the humans revere him as a god, since he doesn't use Atlantean tech much and his amazing ability to breathe air is no big deal to them. I suspect it's because they have to do so to make the plot work out right.)

There's a lot of running and fighting, both on land and in the sea, but even more talking -- this is a deeply talky comic, although the dialogue doesn't really make things clearer. I would like to be even-handed, but I found Undertow to be a mess: confusing, unengaging, and a bit tedious in all of its hugger-mugger. But, again, art carries half of the storytelling weight in comics: in print, with crisper reproduction of Trakhanov's art, this may well read a lot better.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/22

Another week, another stack of books. It's good to be the blogger.

In case you're new around these parts, here's how this works: I list the books I received over the past week every Monday. This probably doesn't need to be said, but I haven't actually read these books at this point -- I may, one day, but not yet. I can, however, tell you that they exist, and some interesting facts about them gleaned from a quick glance and vague suppositions. I do this out of guilt and hope: guilt that I get this stuff for free and hope that you (yes, you!) will find a new book to love and cherish forever. So, without further ado....

I'm leading off with a mystery novel because I used to read massive numbers of them, because it's by a writer I've liked for a couple of decades, and (most importantly) because it's my blog and I can do what I want. The latest in the series about Detroit PI Amos Walker is You Know Who Killed Me, and it's by the great Loren D. Estleman. I spent a big chunk of 2007 reading a batch of books in this series, but I seem to have gotten behind again. This one sees Walker just out of rehab and working for the sheriff's department running down tips in a high-profile murder case -- just the kind of thing you'd want out of a PI novel. It's from Tor's sister imprint Forge, and is available in hardcover on December 9th.

I have a stack of manga from Vertical, all brand-new, and so I'll take the first volumes first, in descending order of apparent originality. Prophecy, Vol. 1 starts a series by Tetsuya Tsutsui about social networks and Internet anonymity. It seems to have two threads: a vigilante who posts videos about his activities before he does them, and the work of a new police division going after Internet crimes, mostly copying and illegal downloading. It looks to be pretty serious and dramatic, with no magical girls or ninjas or lovable teenage losers in sight.

Launching another new series is Ajin: Demi-human, Vol. 1, which is from Tsuina Miura and Gamon Sakurai. In the near future, a rare kind of person called "demi-human" has been discovered -- no matter what happens to them, they simply can't die. And our teenage protagonist learns that he's one of them

And then there's Ryu Mizunagi's Witchcraft Works, Vol. 1, which seems to be a magical school story: the main character is another ordinary teen boy at what should be a plain, ordinary school, but gets caught up in a battle of witches when the most gorgeous, popular girl in the class saves him.

Also from Vertical this month is From the New World, Vol. 6 by Yusuke Kishi and Toru Oikawa, continuing the story about the few (Japanese) survivors of humanity after an apocalypse and their semi-human servant Morph Rats (the rest of the world). I reviewed the second book earlier this year, but haven't kept up with the series since then. (They've been coming out at a blistering clip, clearly -- about every other month.)

Anne Leonard's first novel Moth and Spark confuses me, I have to admit. It looks like a literary novel -- classy Penguin books trade paperback package, suitable for reading on the bus without having people point and laugh -- and has a title like a literary novel. But the plot description on the back cover is solid secondary-world epic fantasy, and a quick dip into the prose inside confirms that: this is a novel about princes and dragons, and people who ride dragons, and fantasy empires, and feisty commoner girls who snag the hearts of princes, and villages of secret wizards. There's even a map up front. So it looks to me like someone is trying very, very hard to hide Moth and Spark from the audience that would love it and recommend it to other readers. But, if you do like novels about noble princes freeing the dragons, finding that feisty common girl, and saving their empires, wander over to the "fiction and literature" section of your preferred store and check out Moth and Spark. It publishes December 30th.

Yen Press has made a habit of adapting popular prose fantasy works into graphic form -- they've done it for Brent Weeks and Stephenie Meyer and James Patterson -- so it's not surprising to see they've done the same with one of the big kahunas of the field, Anne Rice. Rice's recent novel The Wolf Gift has been adapted into a single-volume graphic novel by Ashley Marie Witter. It's available November 18th, and, if you didn't read the original novel, it's Rice doing werewolves. (Which you probably guessed, actually.)

Katherine Kurtz has been writing tales of the powerful psychic race of the Deryni and their pseudo-medieval Europe world for more than forty years now, and there's a new one coming: The King's Deryni. It's an Ace hardcover coming on December 2nd. It seems to be the conclusion of the current "Childe Morgan" trilogy, though the book itself doesn't say that.

Speaking of big fantasy series that have been running for a while, I also have here L.E. Modesitt, Jr.'s Heritage of Cyador, the latest Recluce novel. It's a Tor hardcover, coming November 18th, and I have to admit that I only read one Recluce book, almost twenty years ago, and that I don't know the timeline and characters of this complex series well. But it's quite popular, so I imagine a few of you will be happy to know that there's a new one on the way.

Last this week is the original hard SF anthology Carbide Tipped Pens, edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi. (Because nothing says "forward-looking fiction with good science" than a thoroughly outdated metaphor. Seriously, pens? With that cover? Is Tor trying to only sell this to people over fifty?) It has stories by Daniel H. Wilson, Aliette de Bodard, Gregory Benford, Jack McDevitt, Robert Reed, and about a dozen others -- all insisting that they're really based on hard science, so I expect the Flashing Slipstick Brigade will be out in force to review this one. It's a Tor hardcover, available December 2nds, and I'm still shaking my head about that title.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #325: The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 1 by Gillen & McKelvie

Style can take you a long way. A glossy, attractive sheen combined with prickly dialogue, a few intriguing concepts, and loads of attitude is more than most comics series have, so looking for substance a half-dozen issues in may just be expecting too much.

The Wicked + The Divine is a comics series with style to burn, courtesy equally to writer Kieron Gillen's concepts and brittle dialogue and to artist Jamie McKelvie's gorgeous people standing exactly so and placed perfectly in their frames. The first story arc of that comic is being collected as The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 1: The Faust Act, arriving in comics shops this week, and it provides a lot of joys and eyeball kicks even as it may make a few readers wonder what's beneath it all.

Like so many other comics, Wicked + Divine is based on a high concept, and that concept is yet another remix of superheroes. Every ninety years, you see, there are twelve "gods" incarnated in human forms -- the essence of those gods (not necessarily the same ones each time) imprinted on ordinary young people, who then take on some semblance of that god's aims and concerns and powers. Those gods are all utterly compelling to normal humans, all but irresistible, and so they become very famous very quickly, for doing whatever is most trendy in that particular time. And, two years after they incarnate, all of these gods die, and leave no trace on human society.

It's a metaphor for fame, clearly: live fast, die young. But it's a nihilistic metaphor, because the past gods left nothing -- Gillen isn't claiming that the great artists of the past were all these gods, but that whatever artistic or other works the gods of the past did have been utterly forgotten. The current batch of gods are all pop stars, in the most disposable British style imaginable, and there's no sign anyone will remember any of them ten years from now, after they're gone and a dozen more generations of pop stars have had their own turns. And this current group of gods, at least, is very parochial: all of them are in London and all of them seem to be Londoners. The names of the gods may be drawn from the mythologies of the whole world, but the people touched by those gods are all within easy mass-transit distance of each other. It's all very pop music: all of world mythology and history dumbed down into a three-minute single from a bunch of mostly white kids from Brixton.

Our viewpoint character is the starstruck teenager Laura, who passes out at a concert of the goddess Ameratsu and for plot-sufficient reasons then wakes up in the VIP room afterward with several of the gods -- Lucifer (incarnated as a blonde woman dressed all in white) has taken a particular interest in her. The rest of this arc follows the repercussions of an action Lucifer takes that evening, which draws Laura deeper into the society of the gods and begins to show her some of their rules.

(I've seen some reviews of this series reveling in things like the vast powers of these gods and the lack of rules, but I have to disagree on both counts. All major activities of these gods seem to require a drummer-esque 1-2-3-4 countdown and finger snap -- seen in the 1923 prologue as well as the main story, so it's inherent rather than a 2014 aspect to underline the pop-star metaphor. And they clearly each have specific abilities and powers based on the god they incarnate; we just haven't learned all of that yet. And, finally, the very vague rule of not messing with humans is shown to have serious teeth in it at the end of this book.)

I respect Wicked + Divine, and like a lot of the things it's doing, but I can't entirely connect with it. Both the brief candle pop star and the superhero-as-pop-icon things have been done many times before, so they're not particularly new or exciting as concepts. And there seems to be a huge mass of buried rules and assumptions in this world, surrounding Ananke (the old woman in a silly mask who makes the gods each time around and rules them in a loose way) and her history.

Wicked + Divine can go either of two ways, I think: either Ananke has some secret plan or aim that she's stage-managing each generation of gods towards, or it all is pretty much as it seems, a flourishing of the supernatural once a century to blow off mankind's accumulated magical steam. The secret plan is more typical for comics, so I hope that's not the way Gillen and McKelvie go. But this is described as an ongoing series -- despite the ticking-clock aspect to the premise; the storyline would be difficult to extend beyond the end of 2015 -- so I expect many and varied things will happen as long as it's popular, and that all of those things will be stylish and gorgeous. And, just maybe, some of those things will be more than that.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #324: Underfoot in Show Business by Helene Hanff

Helene Hanff had one of the least-likely successful writing careers imaginable. After toiling for thirty years in deep obscurity -- first a decade or so trying and failing to become a produced playwright, then the length of the '50s writing for minor TV shows in New York before that whole industry packed up and moved West, followed by more various and book-related activities -- her book 84, Charing Cross Road became a medium-sized hit in the UK, then a movie and a play. Like all successes, that book spawned a sequel -- The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street -- and it also lifted the fortunes of the books she wrote earlier and later.

It doesn't seem to have been a life of opulence, even after 84 -- the fact that Hanff wrote only six short books between 1961 and 1992 almost certainly had something to do with that -- but it seemed to keep her going, and she lived in crotchety splendor in her beloved New York until the age of eighty.

The other interesting thing is that all of those books are essentially intellectual autobiographies, the stories of Hanff's relationships with books and great thoughts and important places, explanations of how she became the person she was. 84 was a sequence of letters back and forth to the London book shop of that address, from which she bought a lot of cheap old classics in the two decades immediately after WWII. Duchess was about the trip to London she could finally make after 84 was a success. Q's Legacy covers many of the books she bought from that shop, and how she found out about them. And her first book was the story of those first twenty years in New York, in pursuit of that failed theater career.

Underfoot in Show Business is that book; it grew out of two magazine articles that Hanff wrote in 1960 about those early days (late '30s and through the '40s) It's the most conventionally memoir-like of all of Hanff's books, which means it's only mildly idiosyncratic: Hanff was never one for following other people's expectations. Her introduction explains that it's the book about "the other 999" of the thousand "stagestruck kids [who] arrive in New York determined to crash the theatre" -- the ones who don't become Noel Coward. But it isn't: besides Hanff herself, the only stagestruck kid who appears at all is her best friend Maxine Stuart (who became a respected TV actress, eventually). And you'll look in vain for much about the shows she and Maxine saw during those years, or the state of the theatre during that time -- aside from an amusing anecdote about a show that seemed doomed to failure. Instead, this is a book about being Helene Hanff in New York, in the theater world before and after WWII.

Hanff was thoroughly unsuccessful in that pursuit, and most of Underfoot is about those failures and how she and Maxine coped with them -- the fill-in jobs and crappy apartments and sneaky ways to see plays for free (show up at intermission without a coat, and wander back in with the audience), what they did in the summers out in minor theaters in the sticks, how producers and agents are hugely enthusiastic about things that will never happen, and so on. As the book goes on, it quietly moved further and further away from that world, probably because Hanff eventually realized that none of her plays would get produced, and because she had grown up and wanted a more solid life. So Underfoot ceases to be underfoot about halfway through, as Maxine heads off to California for TV work and Hanff turns to writing TV herself.

Hanff was a quirky person with strong opinions, but Underfoot doesn't give her room to display the full force of those opinions the way her later books did. This is not watered-down Hanff, but it is a Hanff who hadn't yet worked up to full volume yet. Read it for a view of that theater world and for the story of one indomitable young woman who knew she was going to be something, even if what specific thing that would be wasn't quite clear yet.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, November 21, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #323: VS Aliens by Yu Suzuki

Reviewing a story with a big twist at the end is a tricky thing -- how well the trick works is vital to that story, but discussing the twist is usually a bad idea. (Sometimes, even mentioning that a story has a twist is a bad idea, which leaves the reviewer winking and vamping.) Some stories, though, are so simple and straightforward before their big twist that there's little else to discuss -- and that brings its own set of issues.

Yu Suzuki's standalone manga volume VS Aliens falls into that last category, I'm afraid, so I might not have much to say about it. It's another book from the very varied program at Gen -- I've come to start grabbing their books when I see them, which you can take as a blanket recommendation -- after Good-bye Geist and Alive and Sorako. VS Aliens is the most conventional of the Gen books that I've seen so far, the story of three high school students, their interrelationships, and the invasion of Earth by big-headed aliens.

You see, there's this boy, Kitaro. And, on the very first page, a mousy brunette (glasses and all; full cliche wallflower schoolgirl) named Aya tries to enlist his help in stopping an alien invasion in their school that only she can see. The main alien -- depicted as generic X-Files grays -- is their fellow classmate Sana, blonde and popular and all of the things Aya is not. Kitaro agrees to help Aya in tracking Sana, and even confronts the blonde girl.

VS Aliens meanders on from there -- it's not a very plotty book, and reads very quickly -- as Aya and Kitaro soon get involved in trying to save Sana from the other aliens. And then there's that twist at the end, which I have to admit I saw coming from quite some distance away.

This feels like an early work from a young creator: shortish, straightforward, taking some standard elements and ringing some specific changes on them. It's solid and entertaining, but doesn't aim much beyond that: it's a decent story about three kids in school. On the other hand, it is a unified story told over a hundred and fifty pages of comics, which is takes a lot of effort and thought -- so I don't want to damn it with faint praise. VS Aliens is a perfectly cromulent book.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

The Daniel Handler Thing

First off: context, for those who haven't followed this particular minor tempest.

I was struck by the fact that this was an entirely self-fulfilling prophecy: Daniel Handler pretty much exactly said "I could never write about a black woman allergic to watermelon, because a whole bunch of people would call me racist."

And, by saying that, he mentioned a black woman allergic to watermelon, and so was called racist by a whole bunch of people. That's it; that's the whole source of the complaint: he said that he learned that Jacqueline Woodson was allergic to watermelon, that she joked that he should put it into a book, and he replied that he'd need a half-dozen major Black Americans to say that was OK.

Now, people can and will get offended by whatever strikes them, and anything that offends a reasonable-sized number of people is at least problematic. (Though that's a sliding scale: the same people up in arms about Handler wouldn't care if a much larger group of white rural Republicans were pissed off at something they did, for example. We care about offending the people we respect -- no so much the others.) But this was incredibly thin gruel for "racism," and the more that responses like this are seen as knee-jerk reactions to minor gaffes and failed jokes, the easier it is to say that this is as bad as racism gets.

To be clear: what Handler said wasn't racism, and (as far as I can tell) it was entirely factual. There is racism out there, and I expect a Missouri grand jury will display a large helping of it any day now. Conflating major problems with any speech referencing stereotypes, though, will only confuse the issue and make it easier to deny.

Think about it this way: if Woodson had described the exact same conversation, would anyone have a problem with it? This is perilously close to "it's racist for a white person to talk about a black person" -- not "those people," but about a specific, actual person and describing a real event. If your aim is to get white people to understand and treat black people better, insisting that they never talk about black people is a really stupid strategy.

Complain about whatever you want, but don't be surprised if your lack of proportion makes other people increasingly ignore you. 

(It also reminded me of that blog post that's been a linked a lot in the SF world recently -- the very vague one that says something like "we People of Color are going to go off and decide amongst ourselves how everyone should feel about This Situation [unspecified; probably the Requires Hate ball of wax but not necessarily] and we'll tell you what to do and think once we've decided that for you." I suppose it's progress that we're supposed to take our cues from oppressed people rather than powerful ones these days, but it's still massively presumptuous. And, again, telling people what to think is not a good strategy to begin with, so telling them that you will tell them what to think sometime later is even worse.)

This may just be my particular bugbear: I'm a reflexive contrarian, so if someone wants me to believe X, I'm immediately gravitating to not-X. (I was a solid Republican for a couple of decades almost entirely because I went to a liberal arts college that tried really hard to indoctrinate me in the first couple of months of my freshman year.) But, really: a sense of proportion is a requirement for being a functioning adult. Try to develop one.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #322: The Squidder by Ben Templesmith

It's OK if not everything is original. We have genres for a reason: they corral themes and tropes and ideas that we like to read about together, and every genre provides good entertainment for a while. (But never forever: found any good Western magazines lately? Or nurse stories?)

So a graphic novel in a scratchy, smeary earth-toned horror style, featuring tentacle monsters from beyond space that have to be defeated to save the entire universe, is no bad thing. And if it features a too-badass-to-be-true, much-older-than-he-looks soldier who is The One Man who can save that universe, so much the better. And if along the way he's aided by a gorgeous young female, who he doesn't quite trust because of her connection to the squids, well -- we know where we stand with that story, don't we?

That book is The Squidder by Ben Templesmith, which was the subject of a very successful Kickstarter campaign just about a year ago, became the limited-edition hardcover result early this year, and is poised to come out in a less expensive, generally-distributed edition in February. The art is dark, evocative, and attractively grotty, as you'd expect from horror expert Templesmith (Fell, 30 Days of Night, Dead Space, Silent Hill), and the dialogue is generally OK, even given that Templesmith came in to comics through the artist door (and given the requirements of this kind of tough-guy-saves-the-world exercise).

The Squidder is set in the indeterminate future, a hundred years after the apocalypse. Those squids appeared, invading and conquering, and mankind -- or what's left of it -- is now shattered and completely subservient to the creepy interdimensional aliens and their all-female quasi-religious cult. Well, actually, the squids are more interested in being creepy and interdimensional than in actually ruling Earth, so there's a patchwork of warlords and anarchy among the survivors. One of the legendary squidders -- genetically and biologically modified soldiers [1] who almost managed to defeat the endless squid hordes -- is left alive, wandering through the blasted landscape, unable to kill himself because of his programming.

But he's sent to bring back that girl -- to save her from one of those nasty warlords who wants to rape her, for a different warlord who also wants to rape her -- and goes full-badass along the way. She gets him to take her to the heretic squid temple, where the requisite Old Woman Who Knows All explains the plot and the One Last Chance that our squidder and his friends have to save our entire universe. They of course take that chance, and you can guess how it all ends.

The Squidder is a pure genre exercise, but just fine on that level: Templesmith's art is creepy and evocative, somewhere between Barron Storey and Mike Mignola. His monsters are horrible, his strong-thewed hero is laconic and deadly, and his action scenes deliver with the boom-boom. You are very unlikely to find a better comic about killing giant space squids if you search for the next five years.

[1] Because the way to kill an invasion of giant, flying killer squids from the spaces between worlds is obviously to give a bunch of bald guys superpowers, swords, and handguns instead of, I don't know, shooting at the squids with ever-larger tanks and fighter planes and nuclear weapons. As usual in comics, man-portable is the only way to go.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #321: Strip Joint by Carol Lay

Someday, someone will write the true history of strip cartoons, and will describe in precise detail how the complex alternative-paper ecosystem of the '90s was destroyed and replaced by an equally complex ecosystem on the Internet that included (as far as I can tell) exactly none of the same cartoonists. The two systems pretty clearly filled the same niche: smart, somewhat outre cartoons for an audience younger and hipper and more engaged than the grandpa-fodder of the daily paper. And that only makes the extinction event that much more interesting -- sure the two systems overlapped for a long time, with the potential income from weeklies dropping as the potential income from online went up (though the latter always looked shakier and less obvious, being rooted in T-shirts and ad sales and begging for spare change), but, from after the fact, it looks like there could have been more of a path from one to the other.

As it actually happened, no one major made that jump successful -- I waffle slightly, because I think no one even tried to make that jump, but I'm sure there are cases I've forgotten. In any case: there was a whole world of cartoonists whose work appeared in weekly papers in every decent-sized city, all across the country, throughout the '80s and '90s, alongside local journalism, ads for escorts, and The Straight Dope. And that's basically all gone now.

One artifact of that world is Carol Lay's 1998 book Strip Joint, which collected "Story Minute" strips from the previous four years, and which I came across randomly not that long ago. Strip Joint is so obscure that Amazon doesn't even have a cover for it, and Lay, I'm sorry to say, isn't much better, despite her well-reviewed diet book/memoir graphic novel The Big Skinny a few years back.

Lay had been a working cartoonist for two decades at that point, and had been running a weekly strip for about a decade as well, under various titles and with various central conceits. Her art style was mature, supple, and entirely her own: no one else would think to draw people with no lower jaws, or make them look so good doing so. And the Story Minute strips were unlike anything else in those weeklies, each one a complete story -- usually wryly ironic -- in twelve panels and accompanying captions. She had a few continuing characters, mostly a grinning devil and his fortune-telling nemesis, and a few sequences of strips -- where she worked out variations on one theme that particularly grabbed her -- but most Story Minutes stood alone. She made and destroyed worlds on a weekly basis, tossing out a premise in the first panel and then working out the inevitable consequences in Lay-land.

I don't see people talking about "Story Minute" these days: maybe because each one was its own little world, maybe because it trafficked a lot of the time in O. Henry-ish twists on those premises, full of the kind of irony no longer in vogue. Or maybe just because it's better to read a Carol Lay cartoon than to talk about it -- that's the explanation I hope is true.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #320: Kinski by Gabriel Hardman

Writers often try to explain that it's not the ideas but the execution, though readers often refuse to believe them. But it's very true: the ideas or inspiration for a story don't actually matter, only what's actually there on the page. It's complicated by the fact that those pages can always be interpreted in different ways -- there are very few stories outside early readers precise and linear enough that they can only be read one way -- but a smart and careful reader can generally tell if a story is successful at what it set out to do.


Gabriel Hardman's graphic novel Kinski is billed as a crime story, which is true in the broadest sense: it's about a man who steals a dog. But it's not much like any of the various things we call crime fiction: there are no detectives in it, no one is killed, no major crimes are planned or committed, the cast is not made up of career criminals or low-lifes, and the atmosphere is not dark and brooding. Instead, it's the story of a mania that we only see from the outside: surprising and puzzling and disconcerting and unlikely and possibly even unbelievable.

Joe is part of some kind of traveling sales team, in a small city somewhere: visiting with two colleagues to make a presentation and then fly back out. (Kinski is at its most crime-fictional in Hardman's flat refusal to explain most of the background details, in his insistence on just telling us the facts and the events.) Joe sees a dog, immediately wants/loves/needs it, and everything in his life gets wrapped up in that dog from that moment on, even if that's in conflict with everything he should do, for professional, ethical, or even self-preservation reasons.

Such an immediate connection is certainly possible, and a creator can make it feel immediate and true in his work. But Hardman instead assumes it: here's Joe, he says, and here's the dog he names Kinski. Joe will now go to outrageous lengths to keep Kinski, even once his real owners are found. Why does Joe love Kinski? (Does Joe love Kinski, or does he just grab onto the dog as a crutch in an itinerant life?) Hardman won't tell you why Joe does anything, just show you what Joe does, even if you find that ridiculous and bizarre.

So I can't say if any particular reader will enjoy Kinski. I'm not even sure if I did: I spent the first fifty or so pages thinking it was lousy because Joe's motivation was so utterly undefined. Later, I built a grudging respect for what Hardman was doing in this book, but I can't say it ever entirely convinced me. I don't understand Joe at all, and he's the core of this story. Maybe we're not meant to understand Joe, but what he does has to be plausible, or the story collapses.

Kinski is a series of odd, stark narrative choices dressed up as a crime story, drawn in black pen lines that seem to me slightly reminiscent of Klaus Janson. If you think that's the kind of thing you'd like, go check it out.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, November 17, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #319: The Getaway Car by Donald E. Westlake

I've toyed with the idea of making a metric of the speed to non-fiction collection as an indicator of the importance of a novelist. But I've never been precisely sure what I'd be measuring there, which is a big sticking point. For instance, I can say that Terry Pratchett got a non-fiction collection this year (43 years after his first novel, but definitely pre-decease, which is a major indicator of importance) but that Jonathan Franzen got a collection in 2002, only fourteen years after his first novel. Now, does that say that literary novelists should be handicapped about thirty years compared to commercial novelists? Clearly, we need a lot more data points, and I eagerly await the foundation that will pay me a substantial stipend to really dig into this fascinating phenomenon.

 This is bubbling up in my brain, of course, because I just read The Getaway Car by Donald E. Westlake. It's a miscellaneous non-fiction collection, and it fits the type-pattern of the species very well: from a small/academic press (U. Chicago), published a few years after the author's death (six, in this case), and presenting itself as the cream of a slightly larger pile that will likely never be published in book form. Most reasonably popular novelists get a book like this -- edited by their widows, their biggest fan, their biggest fan with access to a publisher, the archivist at the place their papers reside, or just some guy who really wanted the book to exist. All of those folks are amateurs, generally: the miscellaneous posthumous non-fiction collection is nobody's job, just something that happens because one person really thinks it needs to.

In this case, that person is editor Levi Stahl, the promotions director of the University of Chicago Press -- placing him as Type Three -- who ran through Westlake's papers (held, not in Chicago, but at the Boston University Libraries) and pulled out a large sampling: not quite the Complete Nonfictional Westlake, but all of the good stuff as Stahl saw it. Somewhere along the way, Stahl convinced his employer this would be a good thing to do, and then convinced the Westlake estate of the same thing, so now we have a book.

The Getaway Car is a miscellany, collecting the bits of prose a working writer throws off during a fifty-year career: letters, introductions to new editions of his own work, introductions to anthologies of other work, appreciations of his favorite writers, appreciations of his friends, the odd speech or two, a couple of interviews, a round-robin with his pseudonyms, a recipe, one list, several finished-looking but unpublished essays, and a fragmentary autobiography. (I suspect every single writer of at least moderate fame tinkers with an autobio sometime in his seventies -- earlier, if he's particularly vain.)

Westlake was a thoughtful and amusing writer, with many moods and styles, so this is a varied and interesting collection -- the one thing that was consistent about all of Westlake's names and genres was a deep interest in people, their schemes, and how they could go wrong. It's obviously not of interest to anyone who isn't already a Westlake fan, but that's the same for any book like this. And Westlake is two of the best mystery writers of the twentieth century: as himself for comic crime thrillers like the Dortmunder books and God Save the Mark and as Richard Stark for the Parker novels. Maybe three, actually: there's also the darker, blackly humorous Westlake books like Kahawa and The Ax and Humans. Anyway, he's worth seeking out, if you haven't read him before -- see my Starktober series for his second self or pick up any Dortmunder book (I'm partial to Drowned Hopes, myself) for the first.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index