Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Read in February

Um, this is awkward, but I'm writing in late May because I realized I haven't kept up with these monthly posts. It's part of the general collapse of my book-reviewing apparatus, obviously, but I used to be able to handle simple record-keeping.

So I may be writing quick list-posts for February, March, April and May this morning. (It's Memorial Day, 7:55 AM, as I type this.) And I'm declaring review bankruptcy again -- I did it a year ago, just after starting my current job, but it clearly didn't stick. [1] The same factors are in play: very long working/commuting hours plus a deep and abiding sense of pointlessness; I've now been out of the SF world for eight years and seem to be drifting career-wise away even from a tenuous connection to book publishing. I do like writing about books, but spending hours on things that maybe a hundred people will read is quixotic at best, and I'm trying to get less soft-headed as I get older.

So this is what I read in February:

Charles Rodrigues, "Gag On This" (2/1)

A companion volume to the earlier Ray and Joe (which collected Rodrigues's longer continuity strips from National Lampoon), with a whole lot of single-panel gag cartoons of varying degrees of scabrousness. Actually, those degrees vary from "quite" to "unpublishable," so adjust your scabrousness detector accordingly. Rodrigues was as cruel and heartless and vicious in creating jokes as S. Gross or John Callahan -- more so, even, I'd say -- so keep that in mind. If nothing in this book offends you, there's probably nothing in the world that could.

Alexandra Lydon and Laura Kindred, eds., Worst Laid Plans (2/3)

This is the physical manifestation of a live show created by the Upright Citizens Brigade -- or, more accurately, an extension of that show into the print medium. Each contributor writes up the worst sex story that happened to him or (mostly) her, for humorous effect.

It is mostly funny rather than sexy, because bad sex is not generally arousing to most people. It could make a bathroom book in a household that doesn't have teenage boys in it -- it wasn't in my house, for that reason -- or a quick read some day you need to realize viscerally that other people have it worse than you do.

Charles M. Schulz, The Complete Peanuts, 1993 to 1994 (2/9)

Two more years of late-period Schulz, with all of the strengths and weaknesses thereof. (I've already written about most of these collections -- 1957-1958, 1959-1960, 1961-1962, 1963-1964, 1965-1966, 1967-1968, 1969-1970, 1971-1972, 1973-1974, 1975-1976, 1977-1978, 1979-1980, 1981-1982, 1983-1984, 1985-1986, 1987-1988, 1989-1990 -- and so I find myself without anything particularly new to say at this point. I might rouse myself when we hit the very end, or the promised extra volume after the end that will collect odds and ends and L'il Folks. [2] We'll see then, I suppose.

P.G. Wodehouse, Performing Flea (2/10)

Wodehouse -- author of the Jeeves & Wooster trifles, the Blandings Castle stories, the tales of Uncle Fred, the exploits of Psmith, and many other things -- never wrote a formal autobiography. But his old school chum William Townend, who was also a novelist, collected letters Wodehouse wrote to him over a 30-plus year span and collected them in this book, published in 1953. It covers the height of Wodehouse's career from the beginning of the twenties -- when he'd been a working writer for twenty years already, mind you -- and runs to the year before publication (thus leaving out the last twenty years of Wodehouse's life; he had a very long and busy career). It also has Wodehouse's diary of his internment during WWII, which turned out badly for him after he made a couple of humorous broadcasts from Berlin. This is for the more devoted Wodehouse fan, obviously, but it's a nice life, or partial life, in letters.

Kyle Baker, Why I Hate Saturn (2/11)

A great, great book I used to have before the flood. I can't do any better than quote what I wrote about it here in 2006:
I can't tell you what an effect this had on my friends and I when it came out in 1990. Sure, there had been "good comics" before, like Maus and Watchmen, but those were generally serialized beforehand. And most of them were extensions of the usual comic-booky ideas (even Maus, with its sly Mickey-Mouseness). Why I Hate Saturn appeared simply as a book, and it was clearly a graphic novel -- a single story, told in comics form -- that had nothing to do with the usual four-color world. It was funny, it was touching, it was real. There are damn few great pure graphic novels out there, and this is the first one I found. I don't know if it will strike readers today the way it did me, but I can't doubt that it's still a wonderful story, told just the right way by a master.

Jason Shiga, Bookhunter (2/12)

Another book I re-bought, and re-read, in the wake of the 2011 flood. I guess having most of your books destroyed is a good excuse to buy and read some of your favorites again? Not the way I would have preferred to do it, though.

See my review from the first time around.

Shannon Wheeler, I Don't Get It (2/16)

Wheeler is most famous as the creator of Too Much Coffee Man, and, not incidentally, is in possession of the single greatest last name possible. (I won't allow any argument on this point.) So I want to follow his stuff when I remember, though I remember not nearly as often as I should.

Wheeler has been working as a New Yorker style single-panel gag cartoonist -- yes, just exactly as that market is contracting to the New Yorker and almost nothing else in the world; we Wheelers are famously quixotic -- and I think he's pretty darn good at it. Of course, he would be, being a Wheeler. This is a small-format collection of a hundred or so of those cartoons. It's divided into the traditional stages of grief -- Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance -- which I literally realized only now while typing this. So this Wheeler is a sneaky one -- keep your eye on him. (And the best way to do that is to buy his books.)

Peter Bagge, Bat Boy (2/17)

One of the biggest potential dangers of working at home out of your own head all of the time is becoming a crank from lack of interaction with normal people on a regular basis. Plenty of cartoonists fall somewhere on that spectrum, particular the more auteur types -- Dave Sim is the type specimen. Peter Bagge isn't that far along, but he definitely has tendencies in that direction and hobbyhorses that he will ride off into the sunset at the slightest provocation.

So it's great to see him doing work that's not out of his own head, that forces him to engage with outside ideas and turn them into fiction. Even if those ideas are bizarre and stupid, frankly.

Which brings us to Bat Boy, which is nutty and manic in the style of Hate-era Bagge -- maybe because it's from 2004 and '05, closer to the Hate era than now, or maybe because it's from the Weekly World News, the nuttiest, most manic newspaper imaginable. It's set in the world that WWN reported on, which is only very vaguely like our own, though it's ostensibly real. And the main character, obviously, is their mascot, Bat Boy, a boy who is a bat. He gets into all kinds of international and domestic intrigue, in weekly installments, along with a bewildering cast of oddballs, politicians, celebrities, and nuts. This isn't Bagge trying to be serious in any way, and is wonderful precisely because of that.

Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels (2/17)

The famous memoir by the fifth of the six famous Mitford sisters of the interwar years -- she was the Communist, as opposed to her sister Unity the Nazi and her sister Nancy the satiric novelist -- about her childhood. Jessica was thirteen years younger than Nancy (and ten younger than Pamela, the #2 sibling), so she writes of a time when their famously choleric father had settled down somewhat.

And, actually, this is more the story of young woman Jessica Mitford than about the crazy Mitford house in her childhood; she grows herself up fairly quickly and spends most of the book on the few years before the war and how she met and married her first husband (also her cousin, in that very aristocratic British way). So Hons and Rebels is really the story of the young woman who ran off to America, turned Communist, and eventually wrote The American Way of Death. I don't believe there is a better first-hand account of the fascinating childhoods of the Mitford sisters -- the best book on that is probably a collection of letters or group biography. (And I may try to figure out what that best book is, someday.)

Marc Hempel, A Gregory Treasury, Vol. 1 (2/18)

See immediately below.

Marc Hempel, A Gregory Treasury, Vol. 2 (2/22)

The original four large-format graphic novels from the late, lamented Piranha Press line -- seriously, was there anything under that imprint that wasn't wonderful in some way? were collected a decade later in two mass-market-paperback sized volumes, maybe to cash in on the manga craze or maybe just because that format seemed like a good idea at the time. (It's a nice portable format, I'll give it that, but "portable" is often at odds to "readable" when it comes to comics paperbacks -- luckily, this is fine, though I would have preferred the original larger size.)

Gregory is a small person -- maybe a child, maybe a grown man who is just very short -- who lives in what is obviously an insane asylum and who is timid, uncommunicative, manic, pensive, and scared in nearly equal measure. Oh, and there's a talking rat who's his best friend, in between getting killed. The Gregory books were the second-best Piranha titles about philosophy, after only Epicurus the Sage, and they might have been first if they were really about philosophy. They're funny and thoughtful and quirky and wonderful -- and I wish Hempel had had more opportunity to do similar things since. (His TUG & buster was in a similar vein, I guess, but that ended before the '90s did, and I don't think he's had a chance to work in that same vein this century.)

Rick Geary, Murder at the Hollywood Hotel (2/24)

Geary's most recent Kickstarted book is slightly out of his usual style -- it's presented like a storybook or coloring book, with large images on each page and a line or two of narration below. But it's a story of murder a hundred years ago, which is as Geary as you can get.

A young man leaves Kansas -- it's nearly always Kansas, with Geary, since he came from there himself -- to make his fortune in Hollywood in 1915, and settles into a hotel full of other wanna-bes and also-ises. Then there's a murder, of course.

I love Geary's lovely just-this-side-of-naif narration, and his gorgeous precise lines, and this book showcases both of those very well.

Rick Geary, The Lampoon Years: 1979-1992 (2/25)

Oh, I'll roll this in with the next one.

Rick Geary's Book of Murder (2/26)

That Kickstarter had a reward tier that included these two books that Geary published himself, so I plunked down my shekels. (I like current Geary, but I also like the Geary of the '80s, all surreal short stories and inexplicable occurrences and whimsy tinged with nastiness.)

Book of Murder collects stories from 1977 through 2008, some of which appeared in Geary's first two, long-out-of-print collections and many of which are newer than those books. And, obviously, these are all about various murders -- though often obliquely, as in the four portraits that make up the first story, "Wichita Murder Houses" -- in one way or another, like so much of Geary's work.

Lampoon Years is mostly or entirely single-page strips, in that surreal early Geary style, which all originally appeared in the National Lampoon during the years on the cover. Geary was too young to work for NatLamp during its heyday, but he was one of the best things in the dwindling and dying NatLamp of the '80s. These strips might be a bit weird for fans of Geary the straightforward chronicler of historical murder, but I miss the whimsical Geary, so it was great to wallow in that world again for a while.

Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III, The Sandman: Overture (2/29)

When an author goes back to one of his most famous works for a 25th Anniversary story, no one actually expects it will be good. We're all hoping for "not embarrassing," particularly when the original story ended, with great finality, almost twenty years before. So it's a bit difficult to express just how impressive Sandman Overture is.

It not only lives up to the original run of Sandman, but extends and amplifies that story (or those stories, if you prefer), providing a new frame to an existing work of art that throws the things we thought we knew into a different relief and casts pools of light in directions we didn't realize were there.

I'm not going to actually review this book; it's too late to do that. But I will say I was hugely impressed by it, and very happy to know that the late sequel can be something new and wonderful.

Endnote: I'm typing these words about a week later, on June 4th. (My birthday -- whoopie.) I make no promises, but I think I can keep up this pace -- clearing out an old month in a week or two -- and be "caught up" by sometime in July, when I can see if there's anything I particularly want to do with this blog. (Probably not: I've never been one to plan deeply, except for "let's read something every day for a set amount of time.")

[1] I am in danger into turning into the book-review Donald J. Trump, frankly.

[2] There was a blog post on that site the other Andrew Wheeler runs that called the 1999-2000 volume "penultimate," saying there would be one more book after that with the odds & sods. But there's now a description of 1999-2000 online -- it was published a few weeks ago, but I haven't seen it in person -- that says that book includes L'il Folks. So I'm not sure if the fabled extra volume will actually exist, or what might be in it if it does.

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