Thursday, October 01, 2015

Read in September

This is going up ridiculously late -- I'm writing these words on December 3rd, as part of a guilt-fueled push to catch up on the books I've read by the end of the year -- and will be buried back in the archives for those of you who don't see my blog through a RSS reader or other aggregator. (Yes, RSS is generally considered old and tired, but it's still very useful tech -- and "other aggregator" mostly means "Facebook" these days, which is not to be sneezed at.)

Anyway, these are the books I read a few months ago, or what I can remember about them.

Michael Swanwick, Chasing the Phoenix (9/1)

This is the second novel about those lovable rogues Darger and Surplus, world-traveling con men in a post-failed-Singularity world plagued by murderous AI "demons" trapped in various bits of old technology and scheming to murder as many live creatures as they can. It follows Dancing With Bears, which saw our heroes make and lose a vast fortune in Russia, and opens with one of them inconveniently (but temporarily) dead.

Chasing the Phoenix is one of the books I feel worst about short-changing in a belated round-up post like this: Swanwick is a wonderful, supple, smart writer and this series sees him at his most entertaining and sly. I'm not going to be able to do justice to this romp through a post-historical China, and can't more than point to the array of colorful and bizarre characters Darger and Surplus meet there.

I will say that our heroes this time get caught up in a war, and their current con requires them to conquer all of a Balkanized China for their particular crazy warlord. Luckily for them, there is nothing that Darger and Surplus cannot do if there's a large enough reward shining at the end. And luckily for us, their exploits along the way are endlessly amusing and lovingly told.

Lucy Knisley, Displacement (9/8)

Lucy Knisley has quietly become our best young graphic memoirist, or maybe our youngest great graphic memoirist. French Milk showed promise, which was more than delivered on by the deeper and more assured Relish. And then An Age Of License and this book are a one-two punch showing Knisley can take the elements of her life -- each a specific trip -- and turn them into works of art with very different tones, concerns, and moods.

Displacement is the story of a cruise with her aged grandparents, who had very long and active lives but are now frail and grumpy ninetysomethings. So it's very much a bookend to Age of License, a book about being young and free and looking for love alone across Europe -- I'm sure Knisley did this deliberately, and the two books strongly complement each other to show two very different views of the same life.

Knisley's style is assured and strong; she uses panels some of the time, but more often combines blocks of text and watercolor vignettes to tell her story -- this allows her to have longer pieces of text than most comics-makers do, and to get into verbal nuances in a way that's difficult for comics. She also uses excerpts from a WWII-era memoir written by her grandfather, to show who he was, both as a contrast to his current frail, forgetful self and as a celebration of what he's been and done and thought.

Lawrence Block, The Crime of Our Lives (9/8)

Block is one of the great crime writers of the last sixty years: master of a number of very different styles and one of the most compellingly readable writers I know. He's one of the very few people where I try to read every last thing they publish -- he's that good, and that interesting, no matter what he turns his hand to.

This book is a self-published collection of introductions and similar stuff -- short pieces about other crime writers, written over the last forty years or so (there's not a hint of a list of previous publications, which is the one main criticism I have of the book), on all of the usual suspects and some lesser-known names. Block is generally of the school of writers who believes you don't badmouth your colleagues in public -- which is a fine school, and a polite one -- so these pieces are primarily in the laudatory mode, writing about people whose work he enjoyed and loved. (There's a few exceptions, such as when he gets to writing about the old Scott Meredith Agency.)

This is clearly only for Block fans, and for people who care a lot about the minutia of the crime fiction field in the twentieth century. But for those of us who fit into one or both of those categories, it's a lively, interesting read.

Jose Oliver and Bartolo Torres, Young Lovecraft, Vol. 3 (9/9)

This follows volumes one and two, both of which I reviewed at greater length. For this stretch of stories, the Spanish creators Torres and Oliver wander back closer to core Lovecraftian concerns than they did in the second volume. In particular, there's a long sojourn in the Dreamlands, and the adaptations of other people's horror/ghost stories have stopped. There's also a rising tide of metafiction in this volume, as the characters address or complain about their creators regularly. (This can be a sign of exhaustion by the creators, one of many kinds of Letters from Fred that indicate they should be doing something else for a while.)

Long-running strips always have their own energy and concerns, if they're any good at all. They wander off in various directions, and some things take -- becoming part of the standard furniture of the story from that point -- and some don't, staying as artifacts of a particular era. I'm still not sure if this strip is still ongoing, or even how often it ran while it was running. So the adaptations were an artifact, and it's too soon to tell about the metafiction. But the anachronistic Goth aspects are part of the core of the story, and always will be, as long as it runs or however it comes back.

Young Lovecraft is amusing, though it's always been less geekily Lovecraftian than a reader would expect. (It's not particularly for Lovecraft fanatics, but for people who vaguely know who he is.) That's actually a good thing, since it has made Young Lovecraft more universal and less hermetic. Maybe it's still going on, or will go on again, some day. It's enjoyable enough that I hope it is.

Alastair Reynolds, Slow Bullets (9/9)

In one of Reynolds's usual medium-future hard-science universes, a war is winding down -- the peace treaty has been signed, but communication is slow and fighters don't always want to believe it's time to stop killing. One soldier, Scur, is captured by a particularly nasty, war-criminal enemy, Orvin, who tortures her just because he likes it, and leaves her for dead.

But they both wake up, unexpectedly, on the prison ship Caprice, where things have gone badly wrong. It's much later than anyone expects, the ship's systems are breaking down, and they're orbiting a planet that's very different than it should be. This new society needs organization, and Scur quickly becomes one of the leaders.

It's an uneasy group, though -- war criminals from both sides, with a few mostly-innocents like Scur, and the small crew of the Caprice. Peace is shaky and old grievances always close to the surface. And the ship's deterioration is slowly destroying its memory banks -- they are inexorably losing their history, piece by piece every day, so more and more they will have to rely on their own biological memories and the "slow bullets" everyone has implanted with perfect memories of their pasts and families and lives.

Scur needs to decide if revenge is justice, and if this new fragile society can stand either. And they all need to find a way to save as much of the past as they can, in themselves or their slow bullets or physically in the Caprice.

Slow Bullets is a short novel, but Reynolds has always been very good at medium lengths -- he's written some of the best novellas of the past two decades, and this is basically a long novella, in impact and structure. I haven't kept up as much with Reynolds's longer stories over the past few years, which annoys me -- but this is a strong SF novel about more than just its plot points, with strong characters and intrinsically SFnal dilemmas that Scur has to deal with. It's the kind of SF some people claim is no longer being written -- but it definitely is, and Reynolds writes it for the 21st century.

Penelope Bagieu, Exquisite Corpse (9/10)

In this graphic novel, Zoe is a booth babe in Paris who's unhappy with her life -- the modeling career is going nowhere, her boyfriend is a lout, and she doesn't even know what she really wants. So when she accidentally falls into the life of a famous writer -- Thomas Rocher, who she of course has never heard of and doesn't really care about -- she grabs onto it as a change and as an upgrade.

She's soon living in Rocher's apartment, sleeping with him, and serving as his muse (in his neurotic mind). And she learns his big secret, too, which sets in motion what plot this book has -- it's mostly about characters and their interactions, but there's a big twist at the end that I won't give away.

Exquisite Corpse is a bit lumpy and surprising, not always positively: Zoe is amusingly dumb, uneducated, and direct -- very different from a typical heroine, and wonderfully so -- but she's also very passive, so she doesn't take action, but has things happen to her. Rocher is more of a standard type -- the neurotic writer, running around frantic and over-intellectualizing everything -- which makes him amusing, but doesn't make him terribly appealing as a partner for Zoe or as a foil for her. And the ending really is random and unexpected in a bad way: this is basically a farce, so questions of plausibility are rude, but it still makes very little sense, and only works if you don't think about it at all.

Margaux Motin, But I Really Wanted to Be an Anthropologist (9/11)

And I read this next on purpose -- it's another first graphic book by a Parisian woman, so I had a tiny little theme going there. Motin is a blogger and freelance illustrator, working in an autobiographical vein, with lots of short strips (some of them, I suspect, originally from the blog) about different aspects of her life.

Motin presents herself as fashion-crazy, a bad singer but a decent (at least really enthusiastic) dancer, typically stir-crazy as a work-at-home woman, drinking a bit too much, loving her only very slightly loutish husband, and a long-suffering mother to her loudmouth toddler daughter. She's also profane a lot more often than American comics-readers might expect, making fart jokes with her daughters, swearing quite a lot, and joining in the sex talk with her husband's friends.

Anthropologist is a really stylish -- Motin does a lot of fashion illustration, and you can see it in her precise lines and stark figures -- and a deeply real look at one woman's life, warts and all. I hope to see more stuff from Motin, and I'd particularly like to see her tackle a longer narrative -- at least ten to twenty pages.

Roald Dahl, Going Solo (9/11)

Before the flood, I had a one-volume edition of Dahl's two books of autobiography, Boy and Going Solo. After the flood, I found this battered Penguin paperback very cheaply -- it was a quarter at a library sale, or something similar -- and decided this was the interesting end of the story anyway.

Boy apparently covers his school years -- I haven't read it, but still hope to get to it someday -- and Going Solo about the decade after that. It begins in 1938 as Dahl heads out to East Africa to work as a local agent for the Shell Oil Company there, and covers the long boat trip out, a few years in Africa as one of a very few young British men running Shell's operations, and then spends most of its time on Dahl's time in the RAF during WWII.

Going Solo, like most of Dahl's work -- and everything at book length -- was written for and published for a young audience, which influences his tone and choice of words and (less obviously) his choice of events to dramatize. He wrote this late in his life, nearly fifty years later, but he's still writing for tweens and teens, and still deeply British in the underlying stiff-upper-lip fashion. So his stories are mostly uplifting and positive, and if one wonders about the seedier aspects of colonial life or an airman's days, Dahl will not indulge us. But what he does tell is wonderful: written in precise, wry language, understated and implying more than it says, but painting vivid pictures of what it was like to be young and entirely on his own during very interesting times.

H.P. Lovecraft and I.N.J. Culbard, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (9/14)

If I have the sequence right, this was Culbard's third adaptation into comics from Lovecraft, following At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time. And this is the quietest, least pyrotechnic of the stories that he adapted, being the story of an investigation into a troubled young man who came under unexpected bad influences.

(I did my college thesis primarily on Lovecraft -- also Poe and Bierce -- and it was all about how those writers used journals, letters, newspapers and other fictional texts within their stories to create verisimilitude. This is one of the stories I could go on about for extended periods of time if I let myself; it's full of the stuff.)

Ward was a bookish, quiet young man who was fascinated with forbidden texts and stories about raising the dead -- and the novella about him is a post-mortem investigation of what he did and found, told mostly by implication and inference. All that makes it even more difficult than most Lovecraftian stories to adapt into comics -- the big reveals don't happen on the page, but in the reader's mind, so Culbard had to decide whether to honor Lovecraft's intentions or to directly dramatize what we eventually realize has happened. Culbard, as he did in the other books, is entirely orthodox here: he tells the story just as Lovecraft did, changing the medium but not the message.

This may not be quite as exciting as the other two Lovecraft-Culbard stories, but it's a greater achievement as comics, and deeply impressive for scholars of the form and of Lovecraft's work. With luck, more casual readers will also realize how difficult what Culbard is doing here.

Ian Frazier, Dating Your Mom (9/14)

Frazier is one of the mainstays of the modern New Yorker, which is to say, of the magazine for the past three to four decades. (When something is nearly a hundred years old, "nowadays" stretches out quite a bit.) He's both a smart reporter and a humorist, which two personas he tends to keep rigidly separated in his books.

Dating Your Mom was the first collection of Frazier's funny side, and, as expected, the vast majority of the pieces here appeared in The New Yorker from 1975 through 1986. (It was followed by Coyote V. Acme and Lamentations of the Father -- and he's almost due for another one, since he's on a once-a-decade pace.)

These are smart, arch, intellectual jokes worked out in roughly thousand-word essays. Like any jokes, you need to be in the right mindset and have the right background to appreciate them -- and these particular jokes are steeped in 20th century intellectual and particularly bookish culture. I happen to think Frazier makes great jokes, but mileage will inevitably vary.

Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin, Satellite Sam, Vol. 2 (9/15)

The complicated story set in the world of early TV -- well, also set in Howard Chaykin-land, where men are smiling satyrs in double-breasted suits and women take slightly longer to warm up but are equally sex-hungry and secretly clad in much lacier and more exotic garments -- continues here, gathering steam as it piles up complications on nearly every page.

If I'd just read this, I might have been able to explicate it all in a review -- though I mostly talked in generalities when I covered the first book, for exactly the same way-too-many-people-doing-too-many-things reasons -- but I have no hopes several months later, which is what it is as I type this.

So: this is generally good Chaykin, even if I'm not quite sure exactly what writer Fraction is bringing to the table, since this reads like pure Chaykin. If you like that kind of thing, this is the kind of thing that you'll like.

T.F. Peterson, Nightwork (9/16)

This is the fourth book about "hacks" at MIT -- I read the third, which was the first edition of this book, with the same title and author -- over the past twenty-five years, and it incorporates a lot of material from the earlier books, plus new material on newer hacks and on hacking culture.

A hack is a clandestine operation to change something in a humorous or surprising way -- turning a campus dome into R2-D2, for example, or dropping 1994 superballs on the class of 1994 as they assemble for their incoming class photo. They're varied and idiosyncratic, some of them very large and involved and some quick and small. And MIT has a long history of doing them, to themselves and to others (Harvard and Caltech, primarily).

This is a great book about a very geeky subject -- geeky in the very best way, relying on engineering and materials science and computer tech and a thousand other very specific disciplines. Every hack is a project carried out by a small secret group, and the vast majority of them are smart and funny and sneaky and just plain fun. Nightwork is the kind of book that makes you wish you'd worked harder on math and science early in your life, so you could be the kind of person who does things like this. (Or, maybe, quietly proud that you are that kind of person.) It's not actually SF, but I imagine a lot of SF people would love it.

P.G. Wodehouse, Thank You, Jeeves (9/17)

Every so often, I get into a mood that only Wodehouse can alleviate. Sometimes, plain Wodehouse isn't good enough: I need full-bore Wodehouse, with Jeeves and Wooster, and nothing else will do.

In mid-September, I had one of those moments, and luckily I had Thank You, Jeeves to hand.  And I'm happy to say that it did the trick entirely: the black mood was powerless against the force of Bertie and his gentleman's gentleman. (Not to mention the formidable loony doctor Sir Roderick Glossop, the relatively normal for a Wodehouse heroine Pauline Stoker, and Bertie's muscular bosom friend Lord "Chuffy" Chuffnel.)

For those who have read the Jeeves-Wooster books, this is the one with the banjolele. For the rest of you: why on earth haven't you read some of the most perfectly sunny, entertaining stories ever put to paper? Do you not like to enjoy yourselves?

Dash Shaw, Doctors (9/21)

Shaw is probably the most SFnal graphic novelist working today, and this is another examination of a deeply SFnal idea. (Shaw seems to have most in common with mid-period Robert Silverberg: close examination of an intriguing idea with a cast of well-drawn and variously damaged people. His last big graphic novel, BodyWorld, was even more so than this slim book.)

A scientist has invented a device called the Charon: it allows a single technician to enter the dreams of a dying person, and try to break the fantasy world dying people create to bring that person back to the real world. It's expensive and dangerous, so it's only used for rich people -- typically those with unsettled wills, so getting them back to clean up their affairs will be of great benefit to their heirs (Because they generally don't come back for all that long.)

Doctors follows one case from the inside, from the point of view of the woman who dies -- or nearly so -- off page at the beginning of the book. It's quick and a little bit superficial; Shaw could have expanded the book to look at his idea from more angles if he's wanted to. But, still, it's a jolt of a graphic novel, full of ideas and character and incident, hurtling forward from the first page.

David Rakoff, Don't Get Too Comfortable(9/21)

This claims to be a look at the life of the over-privileged, but it's actually a non-fiction fix-up (which is actually vastly more common than the SFnal kind) of individual magazine articles by Rakoff, a few of which are about things that really rich people do. So it's a mild kind of bait-and-switch, I suppose, but Rakoff is dead -- died way too young, in 2012 -- and it's got enough of what it promises to scratch that itch.

Rakoff was a humorist of the "I'm a complete incompetent in the real world, but very funny at writing about it" stripe, which is a proud and venerable style. (And, as with so many others, the reader suspects Rakoff is massively exaggerating his incompetence for the sake of humor -- he had a successful career as a freelance writer, which requires a lot of work and connections and smarts.)

So two-thirds of the pieces here originally appeared in magazines, and I suspect the remainder were mostly commissioned and then spiked somewhere -- they're all in that breezy humorous reportage style, with Rakoff going to do some supposedly fun thing (flying on the last run of the Concorde, working as a cabana boy at a trendy South Beach hotel, watching a Playboy photo shoot on an island off the coast of Belize, going to one of those "puppetry of the penis" shows, taking a "edible wild plants" tour in a Brooklyn park, and so on) and making fun of it. They're all pleasant and entertaining, though this book is from 2005, so they're all also just slightly out of date -- not quite old enough to be historical, but old enough to be slightly off. (Not Rakoff's fault, obviously.)

Dupuy and Berberian, Get a Life (9/22)

The "Monsieur Jean" graphic stories have a scattered and random publication history here in the US, though they're apparently very popular and beloved in France. (I never quite trust what publishers say about the popularity of translations in their home territories, since I've been on the inside of that particular beast and made similar claims myself.)

This 2006 book collects the first three French albums -- I reviewed it here, in a slapdash way, a couple years after it was published (and I'm about to do so again, possibly even more slapdash with several years experience). It's the kind of vaguely autobiographical material that seems more common in France than here, where creators tend to do real autobiography, and dig into all of their neuroses and problems. The French are more genteel, aiming at an Everyman appeal, and so Dupuy and Berberian translated their own lives as young comics-makers into a young novelist named Jean.

These are stories about dating and relationships, friends and neighbors, everyday life and vacations, parties and days playing hooky -- everyday life, in one to ten page stretches. And they're good stories along those lines, with interesting, believable characters and amusing situations and colorful, engaging drawings.  It's faintly redolent of the sitcom, but that's not a criticism, just an attempt at taxonomy.

Nate Powell, You Don't Say (9/23)

This is a new collection of Powell's short comics stories, covering his entire career from 2004 to 2013 -- so it somewhat replaces Sounds of Your Name, a bigger and older collection of short work that I read a couple of years ago (and was several years old then).

It has a couple of the stronger stories from Sounds, plus work done since then and a deleted scene from Powell's magnificent graphic novel Swallow Me Whole. The early stuff tends to be autobiographical, a little bit poor-me, and not as strong -- but the later stories are tighter and more focused and more fictional; around the time of Swallow (2008), Powell really found his voice and started working on a much higher level.

This would be a decent introduction to Powell for someone who's never read his stuff, though I'd still recommend Swallow first, since it's a single story and really powerful. But this is new and full of good stuff and out in stories now, which are all good things.

Roger Langridge and various artists, Popeye, Vol. 1 (9/28)

No one ever did Popeye like E.C. Segar did. That much is fact. But Roger Langridge is very good at doing things along interesting parallel lines to their originals -- see his Snarked! take on Alice in Wonderland, or his great Muppet Show comics, inspired by the 1970s TV show -- so he was a very plausible choice to write a new comic about Popeye's adventures.

This book collects the first four issues of that series -- I'm sure there have been more since then, and probably collections of those further issues, but I haven't seen them -- and it sees Langridge doing Segar-esque stories without aping Segar, which is a tricky bit of fancy footwork. He's ably supported by his artists: Bruce Ozella, Ken Wheaton, Tom Neely, and Vince Musacchia. And he's clearly committed to doing the full Popeye experience -- he even has Sappo back-up strips, in a nod to the "toppers" from the Segar days.

These aren't stories Segar would have ever told, but they're Segar-esque -- Langridge writes a Popeye recognizably the same as Segar, which has not been the case for most of the comics and cartoons over the last seventy years or so. (I could probably work up a decent argument about the Feiffer-written movie, but let's leave that aside for now.) And if you like the Segar Popeye, this is good and new and pushes the same buttons.

That was September; I'm writing this on December 5th. No promised, but I hope to do October and November over the next couple of weeks, and catch up by the end of the year. Let's see if I can manage to do it.

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