Friday, July 21, 2017

Lost and Found: 1969-2003 by Bill Griffith

If you keep going long enough in a creative field, eventually someone will collect your stuff. If you're reasonably successful, they'll even collect the oddball stuff -- the one-offs and blind alleys and test-beds and experiments that you made as you were working towards (or in between) the works that you were better known for.

Yes, you too can be the proud creator of an odds and sods collection, if you live long enough and work hard enough and get lucky enough. If your name is Bill Griffith, congratulations! That book was published by Fantagraphics in 2011 as Lost and Found: 1969-2003.

Griffith has spent most of his career aiming his Zippy the Pinhead character, and associated folks, at whatever Griffith's current obsessions were. It's a good model for a cartoonist, actually: if you have a malleable character that you own, and a flexible, large cast around him, you can keep producing work that gives your audience continuity while telling the stories and working with the ideas you really want to in that moment. It's not coincidental that the major outlet for Zippy stories for the last three or four decades has been a syndicated comic strip: that's been the model for a huge number of successful comics creators for over a century, a way to reach a large audience with work that can, for the right person, be personal and idiosyncratic.

But that's what's not in this book. It has one sequence from the Zippy strip, but it's mostly comic-book-formatted pages, and it's mostly from anthologies and magazines and other people's comics -- the stuff he was doing when he wasn't making Zippy strips and purely Zippy comic-books.

Zippy's in a lot, though. Griffith developed his cast early, and has used them across all of his cartooning formats. But he's definitely not as central here as he is in most of Griffith's work. Lost and Found is heavily weighted towards the early part of Griffith's career -- the 1970s is by far the largest section -- and so this is a book in large part showing how that cast first appeared and developed.

Mr. Toad was the original central character in Griffith's stories, starting off as an Everyman type but quickly becoming the raging id (loosely modeled on Griffith's father, as he acknowledges later in this book) he was meant to be. So he's the first main character the reader meets, soon accompanied by some one-off folks from Young Lust (the sex-filled parody of romance comics that Griffith co-edited).

Frankly, the early comics are very "underground" -- rambling and navel-gazing in turn, clearly drawn by someone who is still learning his craft and doesn't have any strong models or guidelines for what he's doing. To be more pointed, they're not very good. They're interesting for people who like the mature Zippy stuff -- you can trace the development of Claude Funston pretty clearly, and obviously The Toad -- but the first hundred pages of Lost and Found is a bit of a slog for anyone not already seeped in '60s counterculture.

(As they say, if you can remember the '60s, you weren't there. I don't remember them, but I wasn't there, either.)

The back half of Lost and Found is more impressive, with one-off stories set in the Zippy universe that appeared various places during the '80s and '90s, including an extensive color section. This is the part of Lost and Found that most readers will be looking for: I almost recommend that folks start here, and only dip back into the '70s section randomly  as they have the inclination. (I don't actually recommend that, because I'm a fiend for doing things in the right order.)

But, again: this is an odds and sods collection. There will always be sods. It's the nature of the beast. You gotta take them with the odds. And some of this is quite odd.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Summit of the Gods, Vol. 1 by Yumemakura Baku and Jiro Taniguchi

Wanna know a secret? I really don't give a shit about mountain climbing. Very few people do. Very few people give a shit about any random pastime you could name -- shuffleboard, mate-swapping, parasailing, Yahtzee, building boats in bottles -- either as a participant or a spectator.

But sometimes we can be made to care, through the power of art.

And that's how I came to The Summit of the Gods, Vol. 1, the first of a five-volume series about Japanese mountain climbers written by Yumemakura Baku and drawn by Jiro Taniguchi. Well, to be more honest, I came to it because I'd read Taniguichi's two-book series A Distant Neighborhood (see my posts on books one and two), and wanted more Taniguchi. I'd neglected to read the fine print, and hadn't realized that Taniguchi was just contributing his picture-making abilities here, not his writing-stories skills.

(There are people who follow artists around comics. I've even been one of them, once in a while. But I'm mainly interested in story, and I mainly follow people who tell stories. So when a writer-artist I like starts just writing, it may be a bit sad, but I'm generally happy. If he starts just drawing, it's a huge calamity.)

Baku is a good story-teller, and he makes some interesting complex characters here. His main character is both a world-class asshole and a deeply compelling protagonist, which is a tough thing to pull off. He's also telling a long story with grace and ease -- it looks like the whole five-volume series is a single, complete story, and I like seeing people who can do that well.

But, frankly, I still don't give a shit about mountain climbing. I thought The Summit of the Gods would make me care, at least for the length of time to read the book. But, as it turned out, it didn't. The pictures are breathtaking and the people are real, but this is just not a story that I ended up caring about. It's certainly a flaw on my part, and no reflection on the book.

But I don't expect to go back for the later volumes, and I can say definitively that climbing mountains is something I will never give a shit about. As I get older, having those signposts are more and more useful, to mark off all of the things I don't have to explore any more, since they've bored me enough already. I recommend that feeling highly, whatever the things you decide you personally don't give a shit about.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Hawkeye, Vol. 3: L.A. Woman by Fraction, Wu, Pulido, and others

Last month, I read a book called Hawkeye, Vol. 1. This month, I hit one called Vol. 3. In the annoyingly typical way of Big Two comics, the latter follows directly from the former. (One is a hardcover, which in comics-reprinting circles comes typically a year or two after the paperback and combines two paperbacks together. Yes, that's the opposite of how we old-time book-industry hands are used to seeing things happen, but it seems to work for the Wednesday Crowd.)

Anyway, at the end of Vol. 1, the two Hawkeyes split up, because comics are all about break-ups and changes and new things that can last for six issues or so. (Spider-Man No More! once again.) L.A. Woman follows the younger female Hawkeye, Kate Bishop, who drives a cool car cross country to the city of the title, where she immediately gets caught up in nefarious doings and skulduggery of her own. Presumably there's a Vol. 4 that features what Hawkguy was doing at the same time back in NYC, and that seems to be about as long as this particular set-up ran.

Kate's travails form yet another "gritty" and "realistic" superhero comic -- no powers, no flying, more-or-less the real world -- that descends from the Miller/Mazzuchelli "Born Again" run in Daredevil, the major cliche in this area. Look, comics folks, we all know it's not hard to put a bullet in someone's head. And people without superpowers who repeatedly annoy large-scale criminals without actually jailing those criminals find themselves possessors of those bullets-in-the-head sooner rather than later. So talking-killer scenes, and repeated hairsbreadth escapes in noirish colors, just lampshade how artificial your story is. Avoid them. If your villain isn't going to actually try to kill the hero like an actual criminal would in a real world, don't go down that road and pretend that the plan is to kill her. We all know that's not the case.

Speaking of which...Kate runs afoul of a supervillain carefully tailored to her abilities, one who can stymie her and cause her great pain but not blow her away instantly or hire goons to kidnap and murder her family by the snap of her fingers. So she's in L.A., and she Loses Everything.

That's OK, comics characters Lose Everything roughly once a year -- it's one of their major shticks. But she's young and a fairly new character, so this is one of her first Lose Everythings, and it has that element of novelty to it.

By the end of this book, she's Voluntarily Relinquished Everything -- the next step towards Getting Everything Back, And Even Better, Because She's The Good Guy -- and is heading off for the vengeance and catharsis that probably got sidetracked and muted by some stupid crossover or other.

These are good superhero comics, for all that they're drenched in cliches. It's not quite as good as the Clint Barton stuff in the earlier issues, maybe because he's easier to make a sad-sack in the first place. But "good superhero comics" is perilously close to damning with faint praise, along the lines of "a perfectly serviceable category Regency." I wish readers and creators could aim higher, but that's life.

If you like stories about superheroes who can't jump over buildings with a single bound, and like to pretend that such people are "realistic," you will probably enjoy the stories that Matt Fraction wrote about the various Hawkeyes. This time out, the opening story is drawn by Javier Pulido and the rest by Annie Wu, who are both good at the moderately gritty, real-people thing in their own ways. Go for it: I can't stop you.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris

Karen Reyes is ten years old in 1968, and she loves monsters. Monster movies, monster magazines, the idea of monsters -- imagining that there are real monsters around her in her normal Chicago life. She's also seriously bullied and outcast, with no real close friends as the book begins. And she's telling us her own story, drawing it page-by-page in a series of notebooks, with herself as a kid-werewolf PI in fedora and trenchcoat.

But My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is not cute. And it's also not the kind of book where the reader understands the truth of what's opaque to the narrator, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Karen is young, and there's a lot of things she doesn't know, and she does want to become a movie-monster, but she's mostly clear-eyed about the world around her, and she's good at finding things out and piecing things together. (She will make a good detective when she grows up.)

And her upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, did just die -- shot in the heart in her living room, though found dead in her bed. Since the apartment was locked at the time, the police have closed the case quickly as a suicide. But Anka has deep secrets from her life in Berlin before and during WW II -- and she's not the only one with secrets in the building, from her musician husband to the minor-gangster landlord and his hot-to-trot-wife, to the ventriloquist in the basement and Karen's twenty-something amateur-gigolo brother Deez and hillbilly mother.

Karen does meet some other kids who she sees as monsters, or possible monsters. And one of those may not be entirely a real person who actually exists in the world. So there's some unreliable-narrator elements, or fabulist elements, in the mix as well. But, at her core, Karen is honest and straightforward: she's trying to find out the truth, and has some good tools for doing so.

The truth -- which doesn't all come out in this book, the first of at least two -- looks to be bigger and more dangerous and complicated than one ten-year-old girl can fix. And her family has clearly been trying to keep some big secrets from her, like Deez's relationship with Anka.

I've tagged this book as "Fantasy," but I don't think it really is. But it's a book about the fantasies that we have, and about how fantasy creatures can make real life bearable.

All that is told as if drawn by Karen -- don't think too hard about when she has the time to draw this much, or how she got this good at the age of ten -- in colored pens on pages lined in blue, to mimic a notebook. There's around five hundred of those pages, though none of them are numbered, and there are a lot of words on many of these large pages. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is a big book in every way: physically large, full of words, impressive pictorially, challenging in subject matter and storytelling.

This is Emil Ferris's first book -- she's a woman about the age Karen Reyes would be, grown up, and she seems to have been a kid like Karen back in the late '60s. I have no idea how many of the elements of Monsters came out of Ferris's own life, real or transmuted over time, but I can say that Monsters is nothing like a memoir. It is a fully-formed story, about a deeply individual young woman, stuck in a bad situation -- several bad situations, overlapping -- and trying to cope with it through intellect and rational thought and just a bit of wishing.

It's a very impressive graphic novel. Several dozen more influential people have said that before me, and they're all very right. Debuts like this don't come around very often. This is something very special.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/15

Dateline: Sunday, 6 PM

I've just spent the day driving up and back to my great-aunt's assisted living facility in lovely Albany, NY (land of my birth), to gather furniture and move it to various places. I'm hot, tired, and in no mood for any of your shenanigans.

All right, so let's look at what books the Publicity Gods have given me this week -- am I going to have to spend the next hour looking for interesting things to say about books?

Scanning: no new books found

OK, we're done for the week. See you here next week for whatever may have arrived in the meantime. And, with any luck, other posts in between.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula by Andi Watson

This is, I think, still the most recent book by the excellent cartoonist Andi Watson, which I reviewed in a monthly round-up barely two years ago. Why did I read it again? Well, I think that the first time around, I read it from an electronic copy, so I eventually bought a real book for myself and took the opportunity to read it again before placing it on the shelf.

Now, it's entirely possible that I already have a copy on the shelf, since my sense of what books I own and don't was completely blown to hell by my flood in 2011. I frankly can't remember what I used to have and got flooded out, and what I used to have and still have by a fluke, and what I was meaning to buy back then but never did, and what I was meaning to buy back then and did later, and what I've bought since then but haven't read, and what I've bought since then and read and forgot because I didn't care about it. This sucks, since I used to be really good at remembering all those things.

But being surprised by your own shelves is no bad thing, so I'm not actually complaining. Even if I have bought several books a couple of times over the past few years.

And if it means I read a cute little souffle like Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula again, even if I don't "need to," well, that still sounds like a good thing, doesn't it?

Go see my old post if you want to know anything about the book: it's by one of our great cartoonists, and it's suitable for middle-grade readers though not limited to them. That's good enough for me.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

UIniversal Harvester by John Darnielle

John Darnielle came to novel-writing late, after a long, and still flourishing, career as a songwriter and performer. He's been the central force, and occasionally the only member, of The Mountain Goats for nearly thirty years now.

And the assumption always is, when someone famous from another loosely-related creative endeavor decides to write a novel, that it's some kind of vanity project. But Darnielle is the real deal -- he took a detour to get to the novelist's chair, but he's been trying to get there his whole life. And he deeply belongs there.

Darnielle has followed up his excellent first novel Wolf in White Van with this year's equally slim and powerful Universal Harvester, showing that he's not just a guy who happened to write a novel (we all have one in us, right?) but a bona fide novelist.

This may be a spoiler, but Universal Harvester is not a horror novel. (At least, not in the Stephen King sense.) For a long time, it looks like it might be -- there's an atmosphere of looming ominousness, of unknown things going on in the background that may be deeply horrible when they're fully known.

And, you know, a lot of life is deeply horrible when it's fully known. Just this morning, I read a story in the paper of a man right about my age killed on a local highway. He'd stopped, carefully, on the shoulder, to adjust cargo on his car. Another car careened across several lanes to smash into his stopped car, killing him instantly. Witnesses described the crash as so violent that both cars "flew up into the air and spun around." Passers-by saved the elderly driver who caused the crash and her passengers with only minor injuries; a woman traveling with the dead man had to be life-flighted to a hospital, and is still in bad condition. That's just one example: death and pain and destruction lurk around every corner, and the people who are responsible so often skate on blithely while the people around them pay the price.

That car crash was a Mountain Goats song, or could have been.

Universal Harvester has a crash crash in it, but a smaller one, not as pyrotechnic and impressive. Maybe that's because the novel is set in a patchwork of small towns and farmlands around Nevada, Iowa, and for a big, impressive crash you need a multi-lane highway to give you both high speed and a lot of witnesses. The horrible things in Universal Harvester are smaller and more personal -- things that happen to you and your family in private. The things you don't share with outsiders, because they'll never understand.

Perhaps I should mention that there's another car crash -- one that happens before the novel opens. That's probably the most horrible thing here. But it's an Iowa crash as well. Devastating to the people directly affected, but no big deal otherwise.

Other people's lives are always no big deal, unless we make it our deal.

I'm not writing much here about the story of Universal Harvester. It's set somewhere around 2000, maybe a few years later or earlier, in a small video shop. Jeremy, a clerk in that store, gets reports that there are other scenes taped over some of the movies -- we're long enough ago, or far enough out, that VHS is the major format. He watches the scenes, which are clearly amateur: shaky camera, no dialogue, long shots of not much happening. They're also clearly from somewhere nearby. And they might be of something horrible happening: there are figures in masks, or tied to chairs, or huddled under tarps while a booted foot kicks them.

Other people's lives are always no big deal, unless we make it our deal.

Jeremy makes it his deal. He has a deep connection with the film-maker, which he won't know -- which the reader won't know -- until much later. Jeremy investigates. He watches the tapes. He shares them with others, who are also worried and appalled. They make plans and theories. They think they can find something wrong and fix it. But, again, this is not a horror novel.

It's not a novel about people chasing people with axes, at least. Not about supernatural forces from outside the world that are the real source of evil. Not about stopping the One Bad Thing, despite huge costs, to put the world right. It's not a horror novel. The real world, and the world of Universal Harvester, doesn't have horrors like those.

It has horrors like mothers that die, suddenly. Or that disappear, in a way that's worse than death. And it has people who have to go on living, on those oblivious Iowa two-lane roads, after those horrors happen. Just like you and me, in our own ways, in our own places.

It's a Mountain Goats song, on a larger scale -- a story of people trying to live their lives under adversity and neglect and fate. There are no easy answers, no horror-novel monster that can be killed to make the world better. The world only gets better day by day, through everyone's efforts, in tiny increments. And maybe it doesn't seem to get any better at all. And so there's no moment at the end when you know you've killed the monster. Because the monster is life. The monster is other people. The monster is you. The monster is everything and nothing.

Universal Harvester is a strong step forward from an already strong first novel in Wolf in White Van. Darnielle keeps his focus on people and their lives, with a deep sympathy and understanding of grief and loss and sadness. As long as you don't expect it to become a horror novel, you can get a lot out of it.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Sweaterweather and Other Short Stories by Sara Varon

This is not a new book by Sara Varon, cartoonist of Robot Dreams and Bake Sale. That may be slightly disappointing.

It is an old book by Varon -- originally published as her first collection back in 2003 -- expanded with as much new material as old, so it's kinda new, and probably unfamiliar to most of Varon's audience (who I suspect were, in most cases, not alive yet in 2003).

So this new edition of Sweaterweather and Other Short Stories has the eight stories from the 2003 first edition (plus the cover, presented as an interior spread), which originally appeared various places in 2002 and 2003. And it also has nine newer stories, created since the first edition of Sweaterweather and running up through 2014.

Some are fictional, and some are about Varon's own life, though the distinction gets muddy -- she draws all of her characters as animals and robots and creatures, and some of the "fictional" stories are directly from her life, just not presented as a "true" story about "Sara Varon." And it's all appropriate for fairly new readers -- say the middle reaches of elementary school, and maybe even a bit lower -- with an intrinsic sweetness and inquisitiveness that kids that age love and embody.

So the stories that aren't Varon showing us around parts of the world -- that aren't specifically nonfiction with a "Sara Varon" narrator -- are set in her usual Busytown-style kids-world, where all of the characters have adult lives and responsibilities (jobs, shopping, errands, and so on) but are essentially kids, almost playacting in that world. And, of course, everything is nice, and conflicts are almost entirely avoided. It's a sweet, lovely, nurturing world of happy creatures who like each other and maintain great friendships.

A steady diet of that would be too much for most of us, but it's a great thing to dip into now and then, to wash off all of the cynicism and unpleasantness of the adult world. Varon's world is a kinder, happier place than the one we really live in, and should be celebrated for that. I hope this book is in a million schoolrooms and libraries, and as many homes as it can find a place in.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/8

Another week is gone by, so I get to tell you about whatever books showed up serendipitously on my doorstep.

This week, it's one book: Adam Christopher's Killing Is My Business. It's the fourth in his series about a robot private detective in LA -- an alternate past LA, I think -- after Brisk Money, Made to Kill, and Standard Hollywood Depravity. I see that Christopher's robot here, Raymond Electromatic, has gone through a job transition since the series began: he's now working as a hitman rather than an investigator. (As the title notes.) I'm not sure how I've managed not to read this series before; it looks like exactly my kind of thing.

Anyway, this one is in front of me now, and it's a hardcover from Tor, officially hitting stores on July 25. With any luck, I'll read it soon.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Incoming Books: July 5 and 8

I've been on vacation this past week, which means I've been doing things with family members. (Pesky family members, wanting to spend time with you and not just let you read and play video games all the time.)

I was able to turn two of those things into at least partial book-shopping expeditions: a trip into NYC with my older son to see whatever we could get cheap at TKTS [1] that sidetracked to a comics store, and The Wife's trip to a casino (The Sands Bethlehem), to which I accompanied her so she could do a little gambling (she won $6!) and I could investigate a couple of used book stores nearby (The Old Library Shop in Bethlehem and Now and Then Books in Emmaus).

These are the books I found there, already arranged basically in the order that they will go onto my shelves as soon as I stop typing here:

The Nudist on the Late Shift by Po Bronson -- Bronson's first novel, Bombardiers, is one of the great novels of the last 20 years, and a strong contender to be the Catch-22 of Gen X. For whatever reason, Bronson moved sideways from novels (after only one more) into reportage, with what always looked like squishy New Age-y affirmation-based pablum. This was the transition book, which I never read: the reported book about the first Silicon Valley tech boom that came before he dove into things like What Should I Do With My Life? So I decided to finally check it out.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon -- I had a copy of this for years, but it was a big, bulky hardcover, and I don't often get to big books that I missed when they were published. But I've liked several Chabon things, and this book intersects several of my fandoms (comics, SF, good writing), so I probably should read it someday.

Hershey by Michael D'Antonio -- a biography of Milton Snavely [2] Hershey, the man behind the chocolate, the amusement park, and the school for orphans. The family makes a pilgrimage to Hersheypark every summer, and I just might read this book for that trip this year.

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell -- I don't think I've read this. And I keep wanting to read more Orwell nonfiction.

Enter Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse -- a cluster of early Jeeves-and-Wooster stories that aren't (I think) in any of the other collections, possibly because they were mined for later novels, along with the complete "Reggie Pepper" stories. Mr. Pepper is, of course, a proto-Bertie.

The Luck of the Bodkins by P.G. Wodehouse -- another one of those lovely little small Overlook hardcovers, of which I am intending to collect the lot.

Bad Machinery Vol. 7: The Case of the Forked Road by John Allison -- Latest in the ultra-excellent webcomics series, collected into a book form for handy reading offline. Every house requires a full set.

Books, Books, Books edited by S. Gross and Jim Charlton -- a bunch of single-panel cartoons about books and reading, which I don't think I've seen or heard of previously.

Betty Boop by Roger Langridge and Gisele Lagace -- the creator of Fred the Clown (and creator of a whole bunch of great Muppets comics, among other interesting and nearly-random things) teams up with the creator of Menage a 3 to tell a story about a '20s cartoon character. Why not?

Hellboy: Into the Sunless Sea by Mike Mignola and Gary Gianni -- I think this is a flashback story, set when Hellboy was actually alive and on Earth, but I could be wrong.

National Lampoon's Truly Sick, Tasteless, and Twisted Cartoons -- I don't know if I had a copy of this edition, but I know I've had various collections of NatLamp cartoons, so I'm expecting a bunch of this will be familiar. But NatLamp did have a lot of great cartooning (as well as a lot of gross-outs for gross-outs sake), so it'll be fun to poke through that again.

Demon, Vol. 2 by Jason Shiga -- I kept waiting for this to end as a webcomic, so I could read it all the way through. But now I think I'm waiting for all four volumes of the book collections to be published, so I can read them straight through. This may mean I am essentially a Luddite; if so, I'm OK with that.

Saga, Vol. 7 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples -- I haven't loved the last couple of volumes as much as the beginning, but I still want to see what's going on. That's a good sign, right?

Skeleton Key: The Celestial Calendar and Skeleton Key: Roots by Andi Watson -- volumes 2 and 5 of this early series by a creator I like a lot. Once I find all of the volumes (they're from the late '90s, from a small comics company), I expect to read them all through.

And last is Glister, also by Andi Watson -- a big fat collection of stories that I think I only saw the three of, the first time around. New stuff from a favorite creator is an excellent thing.

[1] The Play That Goes Wrong, which is screamingly funny and only very slightly marred by a little structural sexism issue near the very end. Considering it was the first play written by three of the cast members when they were drama students, it's amazingly good. And, again, almost continuously laugh-out-loud funny starting about 15 minutes before the curtain time.

[2] We have a not-entirely-formed family legend that Hershey actually had an evil twin -- that would be Snavely -- who eternally tries to tear down the works of the noble Milton.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Troop 142 by Mike Dawson

I have a son who is a Boy Scout. If all goes well, he should get his Eagle project done this coming fall and top out as a scout by the end of that school year. So I do have some interest -- mostly secondhand, comfortably from an armchair far, far away from a grubby tent in the woods -- in the doings of those boys and their knot-tying and various other crafts.

I'm also something of a interested observer to the career of fellow New Jerseyan and cartoonist Mike Dawson, who made a splash about a decade ago with Freddie and Me and has since become more pointedly political, with short strips published places like The Nib and collected last year in Rules for Dating My Daughter. Somewhere in the middle there -- 2011, actually -- he made the book Troop 142, about one troop of New Jersey scouts at camp, based or informed by what seems to have been his own experience as a New Jersey Boy Scout from 1988 through 1994. (The book is set in 1995.)

Troop 142's viewpoint centers on a father who doesn't entirely fit into these very boyish boys and their regular-guy dads, but are camping with them at Lenape camp site (Boy Scouts are obsessive about "Indian" stuff, mostly by appropriating names) at the fictional Pinewood Forest Boy Scout Camp. (I won't claim to know every camp in New Jersey, but I've heard of everything within a three-hour driving distance and helped my son set up and break down camp in all of those over the years.)

But that man is only a loose focus: Troop 142 is about all of the boys. The three older boys who take LSD and dare each other to do stupid things. Our viewpoint guy's younger son, at camp for the first time with his best friend, both of them very unsure about the whole thing. The two adult leaders, in particularly the guy I think is Scoutmaster, something of a hard-ass with a son who the whole troop hates and picks on.

Troop 142 has a lot of characters, and introduces them naturalistically. Too much so for me, actually: I felt it needed a two-page spread to show the whole group and give them all names, so I could remember who that kid was, who were his friends, and if one of the adults was his dad or not. For a story that wandering through and around a cast of about twenty people, it's important to be clear who they all are -- and, since they're all male, mostly around the same age, all wearing basically the same clothes, and drawn in black-and-white, Dawson doesn't have as many tools to differentiate them here as another creator might. (And that's why I don't have the viewpoint character's name here: if it's in the book, I couldn't find it. His sons call him Dad, and I didn't see anyone else directly addressing him.)

Look: I like Dawson's cartooning, and I'm interested in the stories he wants to tell. But I hate camping, and Troop 142 felt unlike the Scouting I know: maybe the Troop my son belongs to is better-managed, or maybe Dawson was just making fiction and so needed more drama. So I wasn't as excited by this book as I wanted to be. On the other hand, I probably knew that would be my reaction: that's why it took me six years to get to this book.

It's true about any work of art: the closer you are to the world it depicts, the more critical you are. I live in New Jersey and have a Boy Scout son, so I'm quite close to this. And I still enjoyed it, at the same time I was very glad I was no longer a teenage boy.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

The Complete Peanuts, 1999 to 2000 by Charles M. Schulz

This is the end; this is not the end.

This volume finishes up Fantagraphics' decade-plus reprint project covering the entirety of Charles M. Schulz's fifty-year run on Peanuts, with the last full year of strips and the few in early 2000 that Schulz completed before his health-forced retirement and nearly simultaneous death. (Sunday strips are done six to eight weeks early; his last strip appeared on the Sunday morning of February 13, and he died the evening before, in one of the most perfectly sad moments of timing ever.)

So that's the end.

It's also the beginning: also included in this book are all of the Li'l Folks strips that Schulz created for the St. Paul Pioneer Press from 1947 through early 1950, and which he eventually quit when his attempts to move it forward were turned down, freeing him to rework much of these ideas (and even specific gags) into what would become Peanuts.

But it's also not the end: there is one more book in the Fantagraphics series, the inevitable odds & sods volume with advertising art and comic-book strips and several of those small impulse-buy books from the '70s and '80s that Schulz wrote and drew featuring his Peanuts characters.

So The Complete Peanuts, 1999 to 2000 is the end of Peanuts. And it's the pre-beginning of Peanuts. But it's not the end of The Complete Peanuts.

Since we're talking about a fifty-year run by one man on one strip, and a publishing project that spanned more than ten years itself, perhaps some context would be useful. Luckily, I've been writing about these books for some time, so have a vast number of links back to my prior posts on the books covering years 1957-1958, 1959-1960, 1961-1962, 1963-19641965-1966, 1967-1968, 1969-1970, 1971-1972, 1973-1974, 1975-1976, 1977-1978, 1979-1980, 1981-1982, 1983-1984, 1985-1986, 1987-1988, 1989-1990, 1991-1992, 1993-1994, the flashback to 1950-1952, and then back to the future with 1995-1996 and 1997-1998.

By this point in his career, Schulz was an old pro, adept at turning out funny gags and new twists on stock situations on a daily basis.  But maybe his age had been catching up to him: there's a wistfulness to some of the gags from the last few years of the strip, and something of a return to the deep underlying sadness of the late '60s and early '70s. But Peanuts was always a strip about failure and small moments of disappointment, and that kept flourishing until the end.

And, if his line had gotten a bit shaky in the last decade of Peanuts, it was still expressive and precise. And there's no sign of his illness until in the the very last minute: the third-to-last daily strip, 12/31/99, suddenly has a different lettering style in its final panel -- maybe typeset based on Schulz's hand-lettering, maybe done by someone else in his studio to match his work. Then the 1/1/00 strip is one large, slightly shakier panel with that different lettering. And 1/2/00 is the typeset farewell: Schulz, as far as we can see in public, realized he couldn't keep going at the level he expected of himself, and immediately quit. There was no decline. (The last few Sunday strips, which came out in January and February of 2000 but were drawn earlier, don't show any change at all until that final typeset valedictory -- the same one as the daily strip to this slightly different audience.)

In the book, that loops right back around to the earliest Li'l Folks, which had typeset captions. And then we can watch Schulz take over his own lettering and get better at it over the three years of that weekly strip, hitting the level he maintained for fifty years of Peanuts after not very long at all.

We can also see Schulz's art getting crisper and less fussy as Li'l Folks goes on, as he turned into the cartoonist who would burst forth with Peanuts in the fall of 1950. Li'l Folks is minor, mostly -- cute gags about kids and their dog, mimicking adults or pantomiming jokes based on their shortness -- but there are flashes of what would be Peanuts later. And I mean "flashes" specifically: Schulz re-used many of the better ideas from Li'l Folks for Peanuts, so a lot of the older strip will be vaguely familiar to readers who know the early Peanuts well.

Perhaps most importantly, putting Li'l Folks at the end keeps this 1999-2000 volume from being depressing. It's already shorter than the others, inevitably, but putting the old strip back turns the series into an Ouroboros, as if Schulz was immediately reincarnated as his younger self, with all of his triumphs ahead of him (and heartaches, too -- we can never forget those, with Schulz and Peanuts).

Peanuts was a great strip, one of the true American originals. And it ended as well as any work by one creator ever could, having grown and thrived in an era where Schulz could have control of his work. (If he'd covered the first half of his century, that probably wouldn't have happened: Peanuts is the great strip that ended partly out of historical happenstance and partly because Schulz and his family wanted it so.) So there is sadness here, but there's a lot of sadness in Peanuts anyway: it's entirely appropriate.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Pulse by Julian Barnes

I discovered Barnes, and burned through all of his books to that point, before I started this blog, so I don't have links for the novels of his that I love best -- A History of the World in 9 1/2 Chapters or Flaubert's Parrot or Talking It Over or England, England. He's a literary writer, in the sense of being both deeply concerned with real people living real lives and having a strong ear for language and clean writing. His books occasionally have semi-flashy organizing principles -- and he's written novels about love triangles at least three times I can think of -- but his work isn't flashy or shocking in itself, unlike his contemporaries Ian McEwan and Martin Amis. I guess he's an old-fashioned post-modernist, if that makes any sense. But I've been reading his novels and story collections, mostly as soon as I know they exist, for nearly three decades now.

And, as I get older, I gravitate to nonfiction by novelists, and maybe novelists do that, too -- so Barnes had a collection of essays for Americans about the UK a decade ago, Letters from London, and has followed that up more recently with a pair of spare books about death and aging and facing the inevitable (and ballooning, because that's the way Barnes works), in Nothing to be Frightened Of and Levels of Life. I could also mention the essay collection Through the Window, mostly about writer.

Anyway, that partially explains why his story collection Pulse has sat neglected on my shelves since 2011. (Two successive copies of his 2005 novel Arthur & George have done so for even longer.) Short stories, at least for me, seem to take more mental energy to read than a novel of the same length -- so much stopping and starting, so many endings to process. But I did grab this book, eventually, probably because it was short and I appreciate short books a lot these days.

Pulse contains fourteen stories -- nine in one section, five in another. I'm not really sure what the difference is, or why Barnes didn't just arrange them all in one list, but I'm sure he had his reasons. All of the stories are short -- the title story, at the end, tops out at nearly thirty pages -- all of them are about regular people in the real world (the UK portion of the real world), entirely mimetic and entirely low-key. Barnes shows rather than tells: he's in some of the character's heads, some of the time, but he's mostly showing us what they do and how they interact with each other.

This is exactly the kind of literary fiction, to be precise, that genre readers complain about. No detectives, no time-travel devices, no sexy redheads, no intrigue, no unicorns, nothing numinous or flashy or pulse-pounding. The pulse of Pulse is a measured one, a seasoned runner going at pace and knowing well the distance he's going to cover.

So most anyone who could conceivably be reading this blog is not going to be interested in this book. That's fine: thousands of books are published each year, and each of us would enjoy far more of those than we'll ever have the chance to read anyway. It's good to know our limits. If this is outside yours, good for you.

My limits follow a more complicated set of markers, which can be frustrating: the things I look for in books don't track cleanly to genres or styles, and sometimes I think there's nothing coherent in those limits at all. (And that might be true: what any of us wants to read today will be a bit different from what we wanted to read yesterday, and could be vastly different from what we'll want to read in ten years.) But, when I do want to read fiction, I want to care about the people -- I want to believe in them.

And I have always believed in Barnes's people. Even when he's avoiding writing about his own grief by telling stories of 18th century ballooning, or when he's sketching a whimsical history of the entire earth in short vignettes that barely have characters in them, each individual is real and round. So I keep coming back. And I was happy to meet the people in these fourteen stories, and to live alongside their lives for a while. What more can you ask from fiction?

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Great Plains by Ian Frazier

Ian Frazier is a long-time New Yorker writer, and one of the few who straddles the line between the two kinds of writing they're known best for: serious, boots-on-the-ground reportage full of checked facts and quotes, on the one hand, and whimsical, throw-these-two-odd-facts-together-at-high-speed humor pieces. So he's both John McPhee and S.J. Perelman, alternately. (Calvin Trillin is somewhat similar, but he's spent the vast majority of his career on the silly side, and is not as strongly identified with the New Yorker to begin with.)

Luckily for me, I like the work of both Fraziers. I think I discovered him on the silly side, with his classic collections Dating Your Mom and Coyote V. Acme (I think I found both of them remaindered at a mall B. Dalton after Christmas some time in the mid '90s), and followed him through the newer books Lamentations of the Father, The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days and Gone to New York (which isn't exactly a humor book, but is closer in tone to those than to his serious reportage).

But at some point I discovered there was a serious Frazier as well, and figured I should give that one a try, with Travels in Siberia and Family and now this book. In fact, I've been mostly working backwards through Frazier, since Family was a mid-90s book and this one came along in 1989, his first big reported book.

I should probably officially say here that "this book" is Great Plains, in case this post ever gets separated from its title. It's a look at the region of the title, the vast grassy plains in the middle of our continent (well, it's mine and Frazier's; I don't know where you live), from a personal and historical and random-facts point of view. Frazier lived in Montana for three years -- researching this book, more or less, or at least that looks like the reason three decades later.

It's not a long book -- the text ends on page 214 in my edition, though the notes and index run until page 292 -- and is only loosely organized. Frazier was interested in the history of this vast region, and in particular about the Native American groups that lived there. Well, interested, from the evidence of this book, about the end of their time there, since history is all about times when things change and people die.

So Frazier drove around the Plains states, in extended journeys over several years, talking to historians and old folks and random locals, to learn as many things as he could and piece them together his own way. He tells that story afterward, with no obvious organizing principle -- he could have gone by state, or traced each of his journeys, and worked historically, but didn't, in any case. Instead, he tells stories about the Plains in what feels like a natural way, as if each one was coming to him in turn. Great Plains was certainly more carefully constructed than it appears, but it appears simple and direct, like a two-lane road across a great plain.

The main criticism I could see of Great Plains is that it's like Gertrude Stein's Oakland: there's no there there; it's a book that wanders aimlessly down back roads, real ones and historical metaphors, for a while until it ends. But I think that was the point, and it's not useful to criticize a book for doing exactly what it sets out to do. (Noting that aim, and the success at achieving it, is entirely reasonable.)

This isn't my favorite Frazier book, even on the serious side. Family is more unified and Tales from Siberia has more outrageous stories from an even larger, even more harsh plain on the other side of the world. But as a first serious book from a then-young author, it's an impressive achievement. And it might well be better to people who know those plains themselves.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of July 1

Here I am again, with a list of books that came in to my mailbox over the past week, hoping that some of you will find something new and fun to read. I haven't read these books myself -- I may, someday, but I don't read as fast as I did when I did it for a living.

This time out I have two books: one paperback and one hardcover. I'll take them in that order, purely because that's how they're currently stacked.

The paperback is Rajan Khanna's Raining Fire, coming from Pyr on July 18th. It's the finale of his post-apocalyptic trilogy about Ben Golds, one-time airship pilot. The first two books are Falling Sky and Rising Tide. If you like steampunk but aren't crazy about the Victorian era, this series might be exactly right for you -- why not give it a try?

The hardcover is the start of a new trilogy from Nancy Kress: Tomorrow's Kin. It's from Tor, coming July 11th, and expands on her Nebula-winning story "Yesterday's Kin." Kress expanded another award-winning story into a trilogy some time ago with Beggars in Spain, which turned out pretty well: I wouldn't be surprised if she does it again. This one is a first contact novel: an alien ship has touched down in New York harbor, speaking English in a mechanical voice, willing to speak only to the United Nations, and demurring to leave their ship at all. As usual, one obscure scientist, called to meet with the aliens, is our viewpoint character.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Read in June

We're now halfway through 2017, which is a hopeful sign -- if we can make it through these six months, we can make it through anything. I avoided thinking about the outside world, somewhat successfully, by reading these books:

Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock, Compass South (6/1)

Ian Frazier, Great Plains (6/2)

Julian Barnes, Pulse (6/5)

Daniel Clowes, Patience (6/8)

Sylvie Rancourt, Melody: Story of a Nude Dancer (6/12)

Isabel Greenberg, One Hundred Nights of Hero (6/13)

Zander Cannon, Kaijumax, Season One: Terror and Respect (6/14)

Frederik Peeters, Aama, Vol. 2: The Invisible Throng (6/15)

Matt Fraction, David Aja, and others, Hawkeye, Vol. 1 (6/16)

Charles M. Schulz, The Complete Peanuts, 1999 to 2000 (6/20)

Mike Dawson, Troop 142 (6/21)

Sara Varon, Sweaterweather (6/22)

John Darnielle, Universal Harvester (6/27)

Andi Watson, Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula (6/28)

That was the month of June, as I type this, it's just before noon on the first day of July, and I'm going to set this to post at the usual time (twelve hours ago). I expect to keep reading books and writing about them; I hope you, too, will keep doing the things you enjoy and make you happy.