Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Debut by Anita Brookner

One of the most unsettling feelings for an experienced reader is that insecure unsureness that strikes at the end of a highly-lauded novel that fall flat. Did you miss the point? Was the point ever there to begin with? It takes a lot of nerve to declare that a book doesn't work when it's entirely possible that you just didn't see it working.

Anita Brookner's first novel, 1981's The Debut, is problematic in exactly that way: the opening line declares that "Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature," but then the book spends the majority of its short length on Ruth Weiss's young adulthood. We don't even see her achieve her doctorate before the book ends, so the implication is that she was ruined very early and remained ruined in exactly the same way for the two decades that the book declines to dramatize for us.

This is probably explained by the fact that The Debut was that typical first-novel thing, a transmuted autobiography. Brookner's life was evidently much like she describes Dr. Weiss's for its first forty years -- hermetic, circumscribed, bounded by books and the monstrously needy egotists that were her parents, kept separate from the expected world of boyfriends and marriage and a family of her own. (Or even much of a life of her own.) But this reader doesn't see that Brookner makes a convincing case that literature ruined Dr. Weiss: I could argue for her mother, or her father, or both in tandem, equally well. But literature only got to her once she was already severely handicapped by those charming, horrible people.

The Debut itself is as hermetic as Dr. Weiss's life; it's set almost entirely within the Weiss household, and Brookner avoids making it clear when any of this takes place. Reading the book, I worked with the assumption that it was written about 1980, and thus Dr. Weiss was forty then and born about 1940. But Brookner herself was born in 1928, as I found out afterward. Either way, I looked in vain for any signposts from the outside world: I was looking for the hurlyburly of the London '60s and didn't find it, and even WWII makes no impression, even if Ruth's extended stay in Paris, if it matches a similar experience for Brookner, must have taken place in the late '40s. This is a novel about a family, not about the world they live in. That world only impinges slightly, in the characters that members of the family love or exploit or use as escape vehicles.

So: Ruth is raised as a child mostly by her paternal grandmother, who lives with her deeply-self-centered parents in a big posh apartment in London, whenever The Debut is set. But that grandmother dies when Ruth is young, and a live-in helper, Mrs. Cutler, insinuates herself into the family. Ruth is left to herself and her books much of the time: her father is an inheritance-supported  dilettante who owns, then sells a used-book shop and her mother is a deeply narcissistic minor actress whose career dies from lack of attention when Ruth is in her early teens. The two do nothing, care about nothing but themselves, and are interested in nothing: pure egoists of the worst, most useless kind. And they even get worse as the book goes on: her mother, Helen, turns herself into an invalid out of lassitude and indifference, and her father George is only very slightly better in his needy affairs with women connected to his book shop. As I said above, it really does feel like Ruth is doomed from birth, as the only child of such soul-sucking creatures: she would have had to be much stronger and more fearless to have any chance to escape them.

But Ruth is not strong or fearless: she's quiet and mousy and devoted to books, like so many of us. And her faltering attempts to make her own life -- a school friend who urges her to live for herself, a would-be boyfriend as needy and narcissistic as her parents, and most importantly that year in Paris that she hoped would be a life -- are, in the end, crushed not by literature but by the demands of her grasping parents. She cannot escape them, and The Debut explains why.

But it does not show how they captured her, or draw out the pattern into her adult life. At the age of forty, in what is basically a very thin frame story, Dr. Weiss is still caring for her aged father and still living mostly in and for books -- teaching, writing, reading, thinking. She may have realized at that point that she was ruined -- leaving aside my quibble about what actually ruined her -- but Brookner does not move beyond that realization.

The irony of The Debut is deep: it is not the story of Dr. Weiss's debut. It is the prologue. The reader may believe that Dr. Weiss, at the age of forty, is finally ready to make a start of her own independent life -- as Brookner evidently did about the same age -- but that would be entirely a leap of faith, since we don't see any indication that Dr. Weiss is ready or inclined or able to do such a thing. So any reader is left with that question, weighing hope against experience -- and Brookner's novel will not tip its hand either way, unless the title itself is the deciding point.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"Shouldn't You Be in School?" by Lemony Snicket

There are books that are easy to write about -- sometimes because they're so bad, or so bad in entertaining ways, that the bile just gushes forth. Sometimes a book is simple and obvious and useful, and so it's easy to just point to it and say "this is what it does." Sometimes a book is so wonderful that the gleeful burbling is uncontrollable.

But I find that books I mostly like, especially ones in series, are the most difficult to write about. Are they perfect? Well, no: no book ever is. But any flaws are minor and unimportant, so there's no point harping on them. And series books drag the weight of their past along with them, more and more every book -- just getting a review up to page one of the current book can be a chore, or feel like more work than it's worth.

So those books sit on my write-about-them pile, quietly mocking me with their good qualities and their complicated backstories, daring me to try to make sense of them. (Or just to wait long enough so I can honestly say -- as I have many times -- "I really liked this, but I read it long enough ago that I don't remember a lot of detail.")

This is one of those books, in spades: "Shouldn't You Be in School?" is the third book in a four-book series, which itself is a prequel to a previous thirteen-book series. All of those books, also, were written and published for "middle-grade" readers: that's the reading band below "young adult," which is not necessarily less intellectually complex but generally avoids love-plots, teen angst, and similar things. So I feel faintly weird focusing so much attention on a book meant for someone the age of my younger son.

Look: Lemony Snicket is a sneaky and careful writer, and his books all reward careful, thoughtful reading. (Even if you're in your forties, like me: age does not magically make books for younger people more transparent.) And this series has a neat metafictional twist: it's a flashback sequence of mystery stories about the young Snicket, as a young apprentice agent for a secret organization at the age of thirteen. (Snicket does not precisely exist: he's a pseudonym for Daniel Handler, who's written great books under his own name for both teens and adults.) I recommend all of the Snicket novels -- the long "Series of Unfortunate Events," and this not-yet-completed series, "All the Wrong Questions." But this isn't a great place to start, and talking about this particular book would quickly turn into inside baseball.

So go grab "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" (or see my review) for the beginning of this series. Or, if you're more ambitious, drop back to The Bad Beginning and read SoUE first -- you'll catch more of the references that way. That's my advice. And that's, I think, the most important thing I could say about this particular book, so I'll leave it at that.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Incoming Books: Sometime in the Last Week or So

These have been sitting on the corner of my desk since they day they arrived from an online comics store, and I'm no longer sure what that day was. But my new computer is arriving today, so they need to clear off that desk, so I can get into the important business of migrating user accounts and setting up backups and fiddling with BootCamp.

(Yes: I do know that there's no compelling reason for me to blog about books as I get them. But I enjoy doing it, and it makes me feel productive, so I plan to keep at it.)

These are all comics; they were all on sale; and they're all things I wanted to spend my own money on, even though in about half of the cases I've spent my own money on them at least once already. So that's a recommendation, I guess.

Ray Fawkes's funny all-ages series Possessions is back with a long-awaited fourth volume, The Final Tantrum, in which Gurgazon the Unclean has broken free of his bondage and is free to actually try to destroy the world and eat everyone. See my reviews of the second and third volumes for more details, but this is a great, fun series with wonderful dialogue.

It's finally here! Love And Rockets: New Stories Vol. 7 would have been out last summer if it followed the planned annual publication, but art doesn't always happen on schedule. But the new book from Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez is now here, and I have it.

Sweatshop collects a miniseries about a legacy strip-comics creator and his staff from about a decade ago: it's written and partially drawn by Peter Bagge, with contributions from a bunch of other artists as well.

The Shadow Master Series, Vol. 3 collects the crazy, madcap ending of the 1980s DC Comics series, written by Andy Helfer and drawn by Kyle Baker. It includes both of the annuals but does not, as I recall, actually contain a real ending -- the series was cancelled, and left a lot of balls in the air. Still: as I recall it, this was glorious, nutty fun.

Abe Sapien: Sacred Places is the fifth collection of this Hellboy/B.P.R.D. spin-off. At this point, it's written by series creator Mike Mignola with his editor Scott Allie, and this volume has several shorter related stories, each drawn by either Sebastian Fiumara and Max Fiumara.

Ronin: The Deluxe Edition is a fancy newish package for the Frank Miller and Lynn Varley story from the 1980s.

Escapo is also a fancy newish package for slightly older work: this Paul Pope story was from the late '90s, though I didn't read it then. I love the way Pope draws, and his worlds are appealingly grubby and lived-in.

And last was Zenith: Phase 1, from Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, collecting the first quarter of one of the great revisionist '80s superhero stories that wasn't by Alan Moore.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/25

Welcome back to another week's worth of mail -- it's another interestingly diverse collection of stuff, mostly vaguely connected to SFF and comics. As always, I haven't read these books, but I'll tell you what I can about them anyway, because that's the kind of guy I am.

First up is the most diverse: the book I was least likely to see in the first place. Alexandra Robbins is the author of several previous well-researched, bestselling nonfiction books, mostly in the modern oral history style: she investigates a particular subculture or group of people, profiles a few of them at length, and turns her results into a book. (She could be seen as this decade's Tracy Kidder, maybe.) Her new book is The Nurses, a look at a year in the professional lives of four women who work in four different hospitals in one unnamed American big city. It was published in hardcover by Workman on April 14th, and I expect you'll be seeing Robbins on a number of TV shows talking about it over the next few weeks.

Where is the new novel from Kit Reed, about the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of everyone on small coastal Kraven Island one morning -- from the point of view both of the disappeared, in their strange new place, and those left behind. It's a Tor hardcover, coming May 12th.

Jack Campbell's popular military SF series -- in its current incarnation as The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier -- continues in the new novel Leviathan, in which series hero Admiral John Geary pursues a deadly force of entirely AI-controlled warships to their secret base to finally put an end to them. It's an Ace hardcover, coming May 5th.

Mary Robinette Kowal is back with the fifth, last, and longest book of her Austen-inspired historical alternate history series: Of Noble Family, in which the protagonists travel to Antigua to do some work connected with a family estate. And, of course, situations there are much more complicated, and much worse, than they thought back in England. It's a Tor hardcover, available this very Tuesday -- which is to say tomorrow. (I reviewed the first two books in this series, Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass.)

Seriously Wicked is a novel about teenager Camellia -- adopted by a witch, and not happy with her demands to begin with -- and about what happens when that witch-mother summons a demon that accidentally gets free into Camellia's high school. It's from Tina Connolly, author of the Ironskin trilogy, and it's coming from Tor on May 5th. And it looks like the fun here shouldn't be left to just teenagers.

Lincoln Child is a dependably bestselling author of thrillers with scientific and supernatural elements -- not quite science fiction, but definitely the next genre over -- both on his own and in a long series of collaborations with Douglas Preston. He's back with a new solo novel, The Forgotten Room, about a hidden chamber at one of the country's top think tanks and the old top-secret experiment that was carried out there -- and what it may still be doing today. Forgotten Room is a hardcover from Doubleday; it's hitting stores on May 12th.

And now we get into the manga -- this week I've got a small pile of pretty early books in their respective series, meaning there's a lot of new-reader friendliness right here. They're all from Yen Press, and all hitting stores right around now.

First up from Yen is Trinity Seven, Vol. 1, by Kenji Saito and Akinari Nao. It's about a boy who goes to magic school after a strange phenomenon whisks his cousin away -- but what seems more important is that it turns into a harem-manga at that school, with "seven beautiful girls -- each a master of her own magical art" as what seem to be his fellow students.

Next is the manga of IIs It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, Vol. 1, adapted by Kunieda from the light novel by Fujino Omori. Our hero lives in a world out of a MMORPG, with a city of busybody gods up top and a gigantic dungeon filled with monsters below -- and, like so many manga protagonists, he wants both to become rich and famous and to get as many girls as possible.

Suu Minazuki's series is back as well, with Gou-dere Sora Nagihara, Vol. 3. I believe this is another harem manga, more or less, with the usual schlubby teen hero who accidentally got a literal fantasy girl zapped into his life and the wacky hijinks that inevitable ensue from that.

And then there's Hiroji Mishima's High School DxD, Vol. 5, adapted from the original light novels by Ichiei Ishibumi. See my review of the first volume, from last year. It sounds like it's only gotten more complicated -- and full of girls -- since then.

And last for this week is the first volume a new big reprinting of an acclaimed story by Kaoru Mori: Emma, Vol. 1. This time out, it's in a hardcover, and contains two of the earlier paperback volumes. I've never read this series, but I've heard good things about it: it's a down-to-earth story about ordinary people in late-Victorian England, focused on the title maid.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

My Theme Song

I don't think I've ever posted this song here, and it's one of my all-time favorites -- so that means it's long overdue.

I will admit that the fact that I have more than once called it "my theme song" probably doesn't say good things about me. But here's Mr. Matthew Sweet with a fine song about everyone else in the world -- of course not including you!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Today's Political Thought: Radicals and Rabids

In regard to this year's big SFnal kerfuffle: the Sad Puppies are Menshiviks, and the Rabid Puppies are the Bolsheviks.

(Or maybe the SPs are Girondists and RPs are Jacobins.)

The point is that all movements that have a claim on radicalism are quickly hijacked by their own most radical elements. The merely sad puppies wanted to do a lot of things: get themselves and their friends on the final ballot, celebrate right-wing and military SF, declare that American white guys are obviously the best people ever, and so forth. The Rabid Puppy slate, though, was aimed precisely to do two closely related things: promote Vox Day and attack the "SJWs."

The radical who is focused and passionate and unyielding will always win out over the radical who is willing to listen to the other side and engage in dialogue.

I say this because a lot of the commentary online talks about the triumph of the Sad Puppy slate. This is just not true. The Sad Puppy "slate" was a bit squishy as a slate -- it didn't fill up all of its categories, and the calls to block-vote were vaguer -- and it did not succeed. The Rabid Puppy slate succeeded, and any success on the Sad side is purely because Day hijacked large pieces of the SP slate -- it was good enough for his purposes, I assume -- and included them in his own.

The Rabid voters made the difference. The best analysis of this is by Nathaniel Givens, who also is at least mildly pro-Sad Puppy [1]. Here's his money chart:

I don't think the Sad Puppies have realized this, or, if so, they haven't been willing to admit it in public. They were hijacked by their own Robespierre. And they need to think seriously about the situation, because exactly the same thing will happen next year when they come out with "Sad Puppy 4." Day will grab the pieces of that list he likes, add in a bunch of stuff from his own publishing program and anything else he can find that makes lefties' heads explode, and drive one or two hundred die-hards to vote exactly how he tells them to.

To be blunt, the Sad Puppies have been failures top to bottom. They haven't succeeded at anything they aimed to do, and any apparent success was due to other people's concerted actions. More importantly, the consequences have been getting worse and worse -- for them, and for the field -- every year. I wonder if they can realize that the thing to do when you're in a hole is stop digging.

[1] He uses "social justice warrior" as if it were a content-neutral descriptor, for example. I suspect he would not equally use "right-wing nutbar" for the other side. But he also clearly likes data and facts, which is the most important thing.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/18

Last week I had an epic trilogy, but this time out things look to be back to normal -- an interesting variety of books to write about, but not so many that I need to dole them out over several days.

As usual, these are all books that arrived in my mail over the past week, more or less unexpected. I might not end up reading or loving any one of them, but that doesn't mean you wouldn't, or won't. So I try to describe them more or less accurately for your entertainment and/or edification.

I'll start out this week with the book I'm most excited about, and which has come the farthest to get to me: 14, a new graphic novel by the Philippine creator Manix Abrera. Abrera's last book was the excellent 12, which is currently available only in ebook form in the US. 14 is another wordless comic, about two hundred pages long, and I think it's one story -- 12 was a collection of shorter pieces (twelve of them, in fact), with some thematic connections. The bad news is that I don't think 14 is currently available outside of the Philippines, but the good news is that we live in a big world full of wonders -- like a new major book from Abrera -- and that we can find those wonders with a little work. 14 was published last fall at the Philippine Literary Festival, in trade paperback from Visprint.

And how to follow up a book of comics with no words? Well, how about a book entirely made up of words that's based on a comic? Michael Alan Nelson's new book is Hexed: The Sisters of Witchdown, based on the comic Hexed, created by Nelson with artist Emma Rios. Hexed the comic is about teenage supernatural thief Luci Jenifer "Lucifer" Inacio das Neves, and so is the novel: Lucifer here is trying to save a policeman's daughter from the nefarious plots of the Seven Sisters of Witchdown, and maybe get a boyfriend along the way. Sisters of Witchdown is a trade paperback from Pyr, available on May 5th.

Next up is another book about a runaway teen girl surviving by her own wits: The Girl at Midnight, by Melissa Grey. Grey's heroine is Echo, a pickpocket and thief who discovered an ancient race of supernatural beings beneath the streets of New York, and got caught up in a war that touches both that hidden race and humanity. To stop the war, she must find the mythical firebird -- somewhere in the world. Midnight is a hardcover from Delacorte Book for Young Readers; it's officially a Young Adult book, if categories like that matter to you. And it's available on April 28th.

I had a whole lot of books from Yen Press last week, but they're not done yet -- I have another small stack of recent Yen books to tell you about this week. As usual for them, there are some manga (comics from Japan), some manwha (comics from Korea), and a light novel -- they also do comics by people from other places, now and then. All the following books are from Yen, and I believe they're all available this month.

BTOOOM!, Vol. 10 is the nest volume in Junya Inoue's Battle Royale-descended manga about a small group of people trapped on an island somewhere, forced to battle each other with complicated explosive devices for the entertainment of someone unknown.

I believe Umineko, When They Cry, Episode 5: End of the Golden Witch, Vol. 1is nearly the end of this long, complicated manga of murder and mystery, based on a series of computer games of the same name. (I believe each game has a "Golden Witch" subtitle, and that's how you tell them apart.) Like the earlier volumes, this one is written by Ryukishi07 and drawn by Akitaka.

And then there's Until Death Do Us Part, Vol. 9, by Hiroshi Takashige and DOUBLE-S, continuing the story of the blind swordsman and the precognitive girl that he's defending from the usual evil corporate forces of evil-doing evil in this manga.

Park SoHee's series about a lightly alternate history -- Korea still has a king, and he married the heroine of this story, setting in motion of a lot of soap-opera events -- ends in Goong: The Royal Palace, Vol. 18. I'm assuming this is a happily-ever-after ending, because it seems like that kind of book. This one is manwha, so it reads left-to-right the way Westerners are used to.

Now into the light novels -- just like regular novels, but with half the calories! -- with Kazuma Kamachi's A Certain Magical Index, Vol. 3. I'm not sure I'm in favor of novels that have volume numbers instead of individual titles, but clearly that ship set sail in Japan some time ago. This series is about a nebisshy guy in a fantastic city full of magic and super-science, and of course he gets into all kinds of problems focused on cute girls in short skirts.

Last for this week is the light novel Kagerou Daze, Vol. 1: In a Daze, by Jin (Shizen No Teki-P), and, no, I'm not going to be able to explain anything about that interesting author name. This series is about a shut-in young man -- the kind that never leave their apartments for anything -- who has t go out one day to get a new computer and immediately gets caught up in a hostage situation and forcibly inducted into a strange gang. (See, this is why guys like him never leave.)