Thursday, October 03, 2019

The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carre

So, I've said this before, and I know it's weird about me: I will frequently read the memoirs or other miscellaneous nonfiction of a writer whose books I'm only vaguely familiar with.

The way this is supposed to work: you like a novelist, so you read all of the novels. Then, maybe, you move on to other things. The odds & sods collections of journalism, the memoirs, the travel puff pieces, and so on.

But I'm more likely to read one or two novels (in this case The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, six years ago), then buy a few other novels (making sure to get the ones in the same trade dress, because I'm also quirky that way), and meander along for a few years without reading any of those other novels until suddenly I pick up the nonfiction book and finish that.

My half-serious explanation is that I'm now a middle-aged man, and middle-aged men have a well-known and nigh-unstoppable tropism for non-fiction. It's just one of those things.

Anyway, that's why I read The Pigeon Tunnel, the 2016 memoirs of the man born David Cornwell and who has written a long series of literary spy thrillers as John Le Carre. It's a book primarily for people who have read those other books, obviously -- not least because it's by the man who spent his adult life writing those books. Cornwell/Le Carre was 85 when this book was published-- and is not dead as I type this; he has a new novel coming out before the end of the year -- but he's a public-school boy of the very old school, a former government employee, and a writer who has been burned by publicity many times. So this is a reticent book, an elliptical one, that has no overall structure or focus and which touches on Cornwell's childhood (the traditional wellspring of writers) hardly at all.

Instead, he has thirty-eight chapters of wildly variable lengths over the course of this book's roughly three hundred pages: some are short anecdotes while others, like the long chapter on his con-man father Ronnie, are full-fledged and well-formed essays. They range through his adult life almost randomly, and touch almost entirely on his professional life -- he does write about his parents (separately), but neither of his wives and nothing about his children. All of those pieces include only what Cornwell wants to tell. Even now, as an old man a generation after the Cold War ended and sixtyish years after he retired from government service, he's clear that he doesn't want to reveal any real secrets.

There are a lot of bits about real-life encounters and how those influenced or were incorporated into his novels: again, this will be most interesting to people who have actually read those novels. And those are mostly his novels of the '80s and '90s -- the Cold War books, the Smiley books in particular, the ones that may have come more out of his own experiences or knowledge, are the ones where he does not have anecdotes to tell us.

He does tell a few stories of his time in government service, though -- mostly escorting West German dignitaries through London in the years around 1960, acting as their translator to UK prime ministers or whorehouse madams. And he of course tells a few stories about the movies and TV shows made from his work: the usual stories of frantic activity that turns into nothing in the end, and some appreciations of Sir Alec Guinness.

I enjoyed reading The Pigeon Tunnel, but Cornwell is a reticent man at his core, and a reader should bring a lot more knowledge and experience to this book than I was able to in order to get the most out of it. It really is primarily for the Le Carre obsessed, I think.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville

In 1933, a group of French Surrealists described various "irrational embellishments" of Paris, in their journal Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution. Eighty years later, China Mieville decided to use it as the setting for a short novel.

That's reductive and probably not entirely true...but it's pretty close. Mieville was influenced by a lot more of Surrealism than just that one magazine issue, but it's clear that particular transformation was the seed of the book.

The Last Days of New Paris is a 2016 novella about a city transformed by a Surrealist-powered bomb: we see it mostly in 1950, through the eyes of Thibault, a young Surrealist/partisan, with shorter interspersed chapters of the 1941 events leading up to the blast. This Paris has been invaded three times: by the Nazis, who are still around (even, apparently, outside the city, where WWII seems to be still chugging along in 1950); by the Nazi's demonic allies (about whom we don't learn nearly as much as this reader would have liked); and by the manifestations ("manifs," in the words of the locals) of Surrealism called up by that bomb.

And, yes, the Nazi demons do rather seem to have migrated from a slightly different alternate-WWII book, though they are necessary for parts of the plot. Mieville is as usual not interested in simple dichotomies, so there's no sense of Surrealism vs. Hell here: both are bizarre eruptions that Parisians must deal with, both are problematic, neither are as bad as actual Nazis. (In this Mieville is absolutely correct.)

Mieville does not concentrate on the details of the city: at time, it felt like his characters were racing through nature (a wood, perhaps, or overgrown meadows) and not down the streets of a major city. Perhaps they are; that would be very Surrealist, I suppose. But he very much does not have them ducking into and out of buildings, or climbing staircases to get a better view, or traipsing across rooftops, or using any of the other things one traditionally associates with cities. They are instead running through open ground, as if the vast majority of Paris has been leveled -- which is possible, I suppose, but makes it not particularly Paris.

He does have a lot of Surrealist imagery brought to awful life in his city, and there are more than twenty pages of endnotes (after a book barely 170 pages) to explain where they all came from and to bask in the glow of how clever he is.

Thibault's group, the Main a plume, claims to be both Surrealist and an anti-Nazi partisan force, but they are pretty much all dead by the time Last Days begins, and the various partisan groups in Paris come across more as scattered street gangs or tribes, the violence-oriented sector of the few people left alive in New Paris. (Frankly, I was a little surprised anyone could be alive after nine years in a city both entirely cordoned off from the outside world and overrun by Nazi soldiers, demons, and freakish Surrealist creations. There's no sign any of these people are growing food, for one thing.)

So Thibault runs around, to not much effect, and sees a lot of things that Mieville carefully annotates in the backmatter. He soon runs into Sam, a female American photographer who is obviously more than the disaster tourist she seems to be, though she's not the kind of more Thibault thinks she is. They learn some deep secrets of their world, gather a manif of their own -- it follows Thibault due to a leash made by Nazi manif-control science -- and, in the end, save the world, more or less.

The plot is hurried and consists mostly of running around for what never seems like adequate reasons. The world is potentially big and interesting, but Mieville presents it in staccato images, as if he's trying to fit all of his favorite Surrealist ideas into the shortest possible number of pages. The characters are few to begin with, and even the major ones are cyphers: Thibault is an Everyman as much as he's anything, and he's not much of that.

This is a thin book, even thinner than it looks at first, and the very definition of self-indulgent. It will be of primary interest to huge fans of Mieville or Surrealism, or (preferably) both.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

The really impressive creators are the ones who seem to be able to do anything -- who jump from genre to genre semi-randomly, going wherever their latest ideas take them.

My go-to example of that for the last couple of decades has been Neil Gaiman, whose first six book-sized objects were each honestly described as his first something. But I'm thinking that I might be able to freshen up that example if Tillie Walden continues the way she's been going.

Walden is young -- still on the uphill side of her twenties -- and burst into wide notice with her 2017 memoir in comics form, Spinning. Before that, she did a few shorter books, which I haven't seen yet. (I believe they're mostly in the vein of realistic fiction, but I'm starting to think that belief underestimates Walden.) Spinning was, more or less, the story of Walden's teen years: her life in competitive figure skating, her coming out, her realizing who she wanted to be. Her big follow-up to Spinning is this book: On a Sunbeam.

Now, if you come into the publishing world through the memoir door, there's a certain pressure and expectation to do that again the next time. Or, at least, to tell a fictional story about someone who could be you, in a world like the ones you know well.

Walden was having none of that.

On a Sunbeam is a soft-SF story, set in a wide universe sometime in the medium future, with weird technology that feels semi-biological and which Walden presents as thoroughly lived in. She never stoops to an infodump; this universe exists and the people in it do, too -- she may have figured out the details in her head (or maybe not; it's not necessary), but there's no look-at-how-clever-I-was-to-make-all-of-this-up gloating. She just has a story to tell, about a young woman named Mia who maybe has a little problem with impulse control.

We first see Mia at about nineteen. She's just joined the crew of a ship -- whose name we don't learn for a long time, so I won't mention it here -- run by a small team that rehabilitate ruined buildings on assignment. (I don't want to say that On a Sunbeam's world doesn't make sense, because that's not the right way to put it. It does feel like we're in a very odd, quirky corner of that world, though -- the cultural equivalent of something like artisinal bread-making or microbrewing, a haven for oddballs and weirdos.) She's just out of school, and almost equal parts quietly confused and excitedly racing.

But we also see a younger Mia, about five years before,when she was still at her fancy private school Cleary's. (The school may fly around space on its own: this isn't entirely clear.) She was not a terribly good student, and she was not a terribly diligent student, but she did OK. She desperately wanted to play Lux, the weirdo sport that involves racing small fish-shaped flying spaceships through convoluted tunnels in the dark, and she was even more impulsive than she would be at nineteen, but the Cleary's plot -- despite at first seeming that way -- isn't the story of how she just barely avoided being expelled or worse.

No, it's the story of her first love: Grace, who showed up unexpectedly the middle of that year, quiet and self-contained and sure she was going to become a writer.

The two stories do intersect, and combine, before the end, as they must: that's how a book set in two time-periods works (particularly if they're so close in time as this one). Grace is from a particularly strange and dangerous part of this universe, and Mia's new crew has to go to that place before On a Sunbeam is over.

Walden does subvert the expected teen-love-conquers-all tropes looming over it all: more than once, actually. Mia and Grace are nothing like Romeo and Juliet, and nobody's going to die for love if any of the characters can help it.

They might die for other reasons: the planet called The Staircase can be pretty deadly.

There's one further quirky thing about this universe -- well, only quirky if you're not familiar with a long strand of SF, from Sheri Tepper on back through Joanna Russ all the way to Charlotte Perkins Gilman. They're all women. [1] This is not mentioned or remarked on, the same way they never point out that they eat food to stay alive or that clothes are worn on the outside of the body. It's just the way this society is: men do not exist.

(I'll forgive Walden for erasing my entire gender, since it was in service of the story. As long as erasing huge swaths of humanity doesn't become a habit.)

On a Sunbeam has a lovely loose line, moody colors, an often over-enthusiastic young cast, a big weird universe to wander around, and a lovely (and completely non cloying) first love story to recommend it. So I do. And I expect the next Tillie Walden book will be something else both completely different and deeply familiar: some other young woman finding her way in a complex, messy world.


[1] One character, Elliott, is called non-binary, and "uses they/them pronouns". Both of those things seem entirely the wrong terms for this fictional world, frankly, and show a failure of Walden to think through what she's created. You can't be non-binary if everyone else is unitary.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/28/19

This time out, I have books in two categories: three newly-published books, and two that I paid for myself but just came in the mail.

New Books

I'll lead with the quirkiest thing, since that's how I roll: Mingus Fingers by David Sandner and Jacob Weisman, coming from Fairwood Press in November. It's a short, small-format book -- probably a novellette -- and the speculative element seems to be,um, unique. It's about Charles Mingus, the jazz legend, who our narrator sees transform into a giraffe while playing...and Mingus thinks a young musician may be just as gifted. There's also, according to the back cover, something about boxing in it as well.

Meet Me in the Future is a story collection from Kameron Hurley, with sixteen stories originally published between 2006 and 2018. (Mostly 2015-2017, though, when she seems to have had a burst of short fiction.) It's from Tachyon, and I have a finished book in my hands, so I believe it is published already.

Also from Tachyon, coming in November, is a new anthology: The New Voices of Science Fiction, edited by Hannu Rajaniemi and Jacob Weisman. It reprints twenty stories by newer writers originally published over the past five years -- Rebecca Roanhorse, E. Lily Yu, Sarah Pinsker, Alice Sola Kim, and over a dozen more. It's the kind of book I didn't realize I needed until I saw it, but I hope I can get to it soon: I've been feeling disconnected from SF for a while, and thinking there's some cool new things going on over there that I should dig into.

Bought and Paid For

I was ordering something else from that hegemonic online retailer -- a widget for my home-office computer set-up, since I just got a new work laptop, and so something I needed ASAP -- and, as one does, I added a couple of things to the order. The one that's already arrived is Bad Machinery Vol. 8: The Case of the Modern Men by John Allison, the last of the major "cases" from that great webcomic to be reprinted in book form and the first one (I think) to only appear in the new smaller "pocket" format. (I liked the big format, myself, but it is more expensive, a tad unwieldy to read, and sticks out from the shelf -- so this is a change I can live with, though I reserve the right to grumble that my books don't match.) I've said it before, but John Allison is awesomely wonderful and you all should read lots of Bad Machinery.

Last for this week is The Wallace Mystery, the latest in Rick Geary's series of Kickstarted books of historical murders. (The longer books come out from NBM, these days under the "Library of XXth Century Murder" series title, and the self-published books are a bit shorter, use typeset captions and only a couple of large panels to the page, with a series title of "Little Murder Library.") You probably can't buy this right now, but here are links to the completed Kickstarter campaign and to Geary's general webstore, where it may turn up some day.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Service With a Smile by P.G. Wodehouse

I will never write a Wodehousian novel: I know that. But the one in my head that I would write, if I were capable, would be the Unified Field Theory Wodehouse book, in which Psmith's plots collide with Jeeves's, with Uncle Fred kibitzing on one side and probably Mr. Mulliner narrating large chunks of the story.

Wodehouse himself never did that, largely because even his normal books were over-complicated and fussy, requiring a lot of time and attention to get all of the silly plot details exactly right, so that everything felt plausible in Wodehouse's least plausible (and most sunny) of all possible worlds. But it's a beautiful dream, and I wish somebody was capable of doing it at the level of the Wodehouse of about 1940, because that would be a kick-ass book.

I was reminded of that while reading Service With a Smile, because this is a crossover book in a smaller way: it brings Uncle Fred (aka the Earl of Ickenham) to Blandings, to spread sweetness and light there in his own way. This is fairly late Wodehouse (1961), so it ends up being an Uncle Fred book that takes place at Blandings -- Lord Emsworth is basically a minor character, and his brother Galahad entirely absent -- rather than the equally-blended souffle of my dreams.

As always, the joys of Wodehouse are in his books' frivolity and lightness: the worst thing that can happen in a Wodehouse novel is that two young people will not marry the people they love...well, that they love deeply and passionately, but intermittently, since they're always breaking engagements at the drop of a hat (and forming multiple engagements as well, as in this book). In this case, it's primarily Uncle Fred's young friend Bill Bailey, a poor vicar engaged to the daughter of an Wall Street tycoon -- she's is at Blandings under the tutelage of Emsworth's formidable sister Lady Constance, who of course does not approve of the match. Uncle Fred and Bill of course are at Blandings themselves, the latter, inevitably, under an alias.

There is also, as there must be, a plot to steal the famous pig The Empress of Blandings, led by the unpleasant Duke of Dunstable, also currently a guest at Blandings, and aided by Emsworth's current horrible secretary, Lavender Briggss, who I am sorry to say has a very distinctive speech pattern that Wodehouse may have meant to indicate a particular social or physical origin. (This is less than clear to an American sixty years later, frankly.)

The plots -- there are a few minor ones I've neglected to mention, as well -- circle each other in that inimitable Wodehouse fashion, as the marriage possibilities and the career-advancement possibilities and the making-money-by-stealing-a-pig possibilities all get tangled up in each other until it seems that there's no way for sweetness and light to win out in the end.

But of course it does: this is Wodehouse after all, and Uncle Fred's plots do find happiness for all of the characters who deserve it (and possibly even one or two the reader would not think deserve it).

This is a late Wodehouse novel, from two of his lesser-known series: if you've never read him before, don't start here. My general advice has been to begin with Joy in the Morning, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, or Leave It To Psmith, but you could also grab any random Jeeves book from before 1960. If you haven't tried Wodehouse, and like silliness, you should try at least one, once.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Quote of the Week: Secret Shocks

"Everything's been electric lately. Lately everything I touch gives off an electric shock: doorknobs, the railings of stairs, the water from the faucet, the car when I get out. I put my finger to the object, raise it to my lips: electricity. I slap things first to ground myself. I assault the metal around me on a constant basis, before it can strike me back, The keys on my ring hum with voltage; I must grab them with my teeth clenched, before dropping them in my pocket where they might ignite a naked nerve. My day's filled with hitting things,. Only at night, on a mattress that  holds no current, do I confront a different electricity altogether."
 - Steve Erickson, Leap Year, p.10

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Smile When You're Lying by Chuck Thompson

It's easy to pretend to be more radical, more transgressive than everyone else: you just have to say that you are. Living up to it is another thing.

Chuck Thompson's 2007 memoir/collection of travel essays Smile When You're Lying positions him as the one truth-speaker among travel writers. The one who doesn't use superlatives like candy (except when he does, later in the book, describing the people of each place he likes as the best in the world at something he particularly respects). The one who will tell the truth about why people go to places like Thailand (for sex; he never mentions this again after bringing it up in his fiery intro and is remarkably quiet about drugs as well). The one who is fearless and unafraid to burn bridges (except for the very long list of editors he effusively thanks at the end).

That all would be fine: we expect a little showmanship from our writers, particularly those (like travel writers) who are always aiming for the new and the hot.

But I unfortunately read this book, which presents itself as an expose about how travel magazines are a big profitable business that stifle contrarian views in favor of relentless puffery [1], more than a decade after Thompson wrote it. The magazine market of 2019 is not what it was in 2006 when Thompson wrote this book -- hell, no business in the world is what it was in 2006, purely because of 2006, but magazines, and print periodicals in general, were already on a downward trend due to the rise of the Internet and a massive advertising transition there.

Thompson shows no sign of seeing that his entire world was about to change: he presents a monolithic, massively profitable entity when we all know it was nothing of the sort. (And I think that transition hit Thompson as well: he seems to have spent much of the last decade transitioning into TV/Internet himself, as executive producer of CNN Travel and editorial director of CNNGo.com.)

So he wasn't prescient: how many of us were?

Smile When You're Lying is still fun, a loose assemblage of stories vaguely organized around travel and Thompson's life, with no actual structure (geographical, historical, thematic) to be discerned. It is divided into three sections by airline seat -- Aisle, Middle, and Window -- but my high-powered instruments were not able to detect the actual differences between them.

Thompson, as one might guess once one realizes he has spent most of his career as a reasonably connected travel editor/producer himself, is not actually as radical in practice as he is in rhetoric. (Again: how many of us are?) Smile When You're Lying has a reasonable hook, which Thompson uses to hang some loosely-related material, and he's pretty entertaining along the way. I suspect that if he'd instead written a more traditional "how I grew up and got out" memoir -- he's from Juneau, and had an interesting background from the glimpses he gives here -- it would have been more coherent and focused, but it probably also would have been more personal, and Thompson would rather be bold than personal.

Instead, each of the eleven chapters is supposedly about something but ends up pulling together a bunch of stories from a particular time and place in his life -- again, generally related to his travel-writing career, but taking that very broadly to start with an ill-fated cross-country car trip when he was about eighteen and including a couple of years spent teaching English in rural Japan. It does start out more fire-breathing than it ends, with digs at various periodicals and book lines (that this reader started to think wouldn't hire him, or where he has personal conflicts with major editors), before it settles down into more stories about stuff he did, or, more accurately, stuff that happened while he was there to see it. (He's a writer: they're much more likely to hang back and observe.)

It's entertaining and rabble-rousing, and contains possibly a few facts that might be useful to the reader later on. Just don't spent any time buying into his introductory screed: it doesn't go anywhere, in this book or in real life.


[1] It's not actually that: it's a loose baggy collection of stories from Thompson's life, most of which happened during his career as a travel writer and all of which happened somewhere other than his house. Thus it is a travel book.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Leap Year by Steve Erickson

I doubt anyone has noticed this -- or cares -- but I've been using Wednesdays this year for reviews of SF/F books, or of fantastika more generally. So far it's worked out, though I'm not tailoring my reading to fill specific slots, and I obviously had a lot of dead air earlier this year.

Today, though, I have a book with possibly the oddest set of tags in the history of this blog. Today I'm here to write about Steve Erickson's 1989 supposedly non-fiction book Leap Year, the story of the previous year's presidential election (Dukakis vs. Bush I, though we had no idea there'd be a II at that point), narrated by the Erickson, who traveled the country in the occasional company of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's slave mistress. [1]

Erickson uses Hemings as a lens on the corrosive effect of race and slavery on the USA, but that's only one thread of a very discursive, circling book. Erickson spends very little time actually with the candidates or out on the trail talking to "regular Americans" in the usual campaign-lit way. (He fails to even get press credentials for the Republican Convention, and so misses that entirely.) Leap Year is instead a deep look inside the head of one man, conflicted about his country, as he travels around that country. Oh, and pursued by a revenge-driven Al Gore, in case you think it couldn't get any weirder.

It has no chapters. Its paragraphs sometimes run for pages; its sentences almost that long. The book itself isn't long -- only 192 pages -- but every page is hard-fought, full of depths Erickson had to dig out with pick and shovel in the mine of his idea of America. Erickson is wrestling with himself and his country the whole time, and Leap Year contains some of his best thoughts and writing of his career. It doesn't have much of shape, unfortunately: the election itself turned out to be a snoozer, bland primaries leading to the obvious candidates nominated on both sides, and then Dukakis utterly failing to come across as a plausible President or provide a single compelling reason to vote for him. So the external conflicts Erickson probably was counting on in his book pitch fizzled out, leaving him alone in the dark night of Reaganite America, full of racist dog whistles and the coming apotheosis of the Southern Strategy.

Leap Year is the book of that moment in time, and that's why Hemings is in it. You can say that every great country has a thousand weirdly specific, quirky things that can only be explained by one, big, central fact that everyone pretends is dead and buried -- for the UK, it's the class system, for the US, it's slavery. Erickson never lays out that theory explicitly in Leap Year, but its spirit is behind every word: remember that 1988 was also the year of Jesse Jackson's greatest prominence in Democratic presidential politics, the year he came as close as he ever could to being the nominee.

Erickson is at his most prescient when he's talking fantastically about the current day, so Leap Year still reads like a bolt of electricity now, after Obama and during a Republican administration that has taken all of the lessons of Reagan, coarsened them and pushed them past any logical limits, and has given up entirely on even the idea of truth.

I doubt many people will read Leap Year for the coming presidential election year. They should.


[1] "Mistress" makes it sound like she had a choice in the matter: in Erickson's telling, she did. What she thought about that choice, and what that choice meant for her and for all America, are important in the book.

This is also a decent place to point out that Hemings was three-quarters European, the generation-younger half-sister of Jefferson's wife, who came into Jefferson's household as an infant with that marriage and who he apparently began sleeping with in Paris, when she was fifteen. Erikson's male main characters are always flawed men who fail disastrously at the things they think are most important: Jefferson fits that mold perfectly, horribly.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks

P.G. Wodehouse died in 1975, after writing only fourteen Jeeves and Wooster novels among his roughly hundred books during a seventy-plus year career as a working writer. It was difficult for his estate to claim then that there wasn't enough Wodehouse, so they busied themselves with licensing the existing books to publishers around the world, commissioning a quite good TV series in the early '90s, and other activities.

But time marches on, and the bottomless gullet of book publishing is always hungry for new works. And so, eventually, the Wodehouse estate, for whatever reasons we may want to attribute to them, decided that, maybe, just maybe, there weren't quite enough Jeeves and Wooster books after all.

Maybe they had a beauty parade of would-be Wodehouses, maybe they quietly asked a few well-connected agents to recommend authors who might be interested, maybe they just threw darts at a Sunday Times bestseller list. In any case, Sebastian Faulks was anointed as the Man with the Plan. (One might surmise that his previous sharecropping work, the James Bond novel Devil May Care, somehow figured into the decision.)

Again, we don't know how many drafts he wrote, how picky the Wodehouse estate was, or any of the other really juicy behind-the-scenes details. But, in 2013, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells was published, a full 38 years after Wodehouse's final novel, the minor Jeeves and Wooster book Aunts Aren't Gentlemen.

Faulks is a "real" novelist in a way Wodehouse wasn't, which has its pluses and minuses. Faulks seems to want to have characters that grow and change, and that are actually living in a specific point in time -- those are all things that Wodehouse studiously avoided, and one might consider that, as it were, an important gap in the literature that creates the overall Wodehouse gestalt. On the other hand, Faulks is also serious enough to write a deeply Wodehousian book, full of impostors at country homes, sundered loves, quotes from improving books from Jeeves, young people engaged to the wrong other young people, and the usual tangle of would-be marriages and unhappy guardians to be all put right in the end.

Wedding Bells is Wodehousian without ever quite turning into a Wodehouse novel: Bertie has emotional depths, which I found deeply distracting, and Faulks doesn't quite manage the Wodehousian two-step of telling the book from Bertie's point of view while still showing how confused and dim he actually is. His prose, also, is Wodehouse-esque without trying to closely ape the same style: this is probably a good thing.

All in all, Wedding Bells feels like an alternate-world Jeeves novel, one written in a universe where there is a consistent Wodehouse shared world, where each book can be placed at a moment in time (likely all in the interwar period), and where major characters change from book to book. That's not the world we live in -- and I for one am very happy I don't have to contemplate the book in which the Empress of Blandings has gotten too old and must be put down -- but it was pleasant to visit for the space of one book.

But Wedding Bells, like most posthumous sharecropped books, is at best a thin replica of something distinctive. What it most does is remind us of how inimitable Wodehouse was, and send us back to reading his real books. (And, come to think of it, that's probably precisely what his estate wanted. Tricky fellows!)

Friday, September 06, 2019

Quote of the Week: Something to Say

"For a while I didn't have anything more to say. I was working in a comic-book store on Melrose Avenue. This is the main drag of Pop Angeles; it used to be art galleries and thrift shops, and then about a decade ago punk seized control of its low-rent aspects. Now there are retro diners and record stores and gelato shops and trendy eateries and this comic-book store where I worked. Punks and New Hollywood moguls and alleged bohemians and tourists and counterculture newspaper editors from Oregon who can't wait to move to New York because Los Angeles isn't hip enough for them all collide on Melrose Avenue; a Jewish retirement home sits in the middle of it; Holocaust victims on the patio watch the passing parade. I worked in the comic-book store about eight months. I attended to the needs of adolescent boys who required this issue or that of Punisher or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I also had to put up with the grownups, young men in suits and ties who would burst in red-faced and hot under the collar about the ways Superman was stripped of certain facets of his X-ray vision in the most recent adventure. The most appealing thing about the job was the way everyone thought it was beneath me. Even the other people who worked in the store thought it was beneath me, though not necessarily beneath them. This was just something I had to overcome, it just took time to persuade people that it wasn't beneath me at all, that I was in fact perfectly suited to such an occupation. By the end of the time I worked there they believed this. I completely convinced them. I left finally because there was something to say again, and so I wrote another book and now that's over and it's the beginning of another year."
 - Steve Erickson, Leap Year, pp.13-14

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Florida Man and His World: Two Books by Craig Pittman & Dave Barry

Sometimes you read two books because they cover the same thing, because you expect they'll bounce off each other in your mind. It doesn't always work out right -- books often aren't what you expect they will be, and you can never know how you'll react to them -- but it's always good to stretch yourself.

This was a very, very minor way of stretching myself: reading two books about how weird Florida is. Craig Pittman's 2016 book Oh, Florida! (an expansion and reconfiguring of a blog series of the same name in Slate a few years earlier) is the more-or-less serious version of the "hey! lookie how crazy this state is!" story, with more than a little history and a dozen-and-a-half thematic chapters. Dave Barry's Best. State. Ever. (also 2016) is vastly more frivolous, a book barely half the length with half as many chapters, all but the first of which were "go there and do the crazy thing" reports. (Since Barry had been retired as a columnist for about a decade, and the book doesn't credit previous publication, my guess is that all of the visits were for the book -- but it's possible that he did manage to sell them as articles as well, and the book just kept silent on that.)

I, of course, read them in the wrong order: Barry first, since it's shorter and funnier and sillier.

The reductive way of contrasting the two books is to point out that Pittman is a reporter: mostly on an environmental beat, for the Tampa Bay Times for the past decade or so, with three serious books of reportage on serious issues (manatees, orchids, grasslands) behind him. He's good at research, knows a lot of facts, and has a point of view that he doesn't let get in the way of a good story. He's also a native Floridian, that rare (but endlessly self-identifying) breed.

Barry, on the other hand, is a humorist: he wrote a column for several decades, and has made a very good living off writing one to ten thousand funny words about This Silly Thing on a regular basis for most of his adult life. He moved to Florida long enough ago that he spent most of his career there, though I still think of him as a Northeastern guy, since he was syndicated out of a Philadelphia paper when I discovered him.

Amusingly, Pittman covers most of the factual pieces in Barry's book, along with much more, in his longer and more in-depth book. (Pittman is silent on the Skunk Ape and did not, unlike Barry, attempt to get salable copy out of being a middle-aged man in a hot Miami Beach night club. Barry's chapters are also all about Being Dave Barry in a specific place and milieu; Pittman is much less present in his own book.)

The real difference in the two is tone. Barry is rich and successful, and got that way by being willing to be silly and happy in public, writing about any nutty thing that came his way. Florida, as Pittman says many times, is the land of the optimist and the dreamer, so Barry fit in well there. Barry gives no sign that the deep endemic corruption of his state matters in the slightest to him, or that any of the systemic issues -- the climate change that will probably doom Miami, the bone-deep racism curdled into things like "Stand Your Ground" laws, the toxic and hypocritical brand of evangelical Christianity so common there, the pure demographic weight of millions of old people who move there to waste their money and avoid paying taxes before they die -- are of any concern. So Barry's book is sunny and entirely happy: hey! let's chase a Skunk Ape! wow! let's go drinking in Key West! cool! it's the biggest retirement community in the world, and they're having lots of sex!

Pittman, on the other hand, clearly sees the rot. But he's a classic reporter, and so doesn't show any evidence that he thinks the rot could be entirely turned around or cured. Florida is a land for scams and schemers, he says: it might be possible to clean up parts of it here and there, but there's always a new crazy money-making idea (or an old one back again, like land speculation) and always several million idiots willing to put their money into it and probably lose it all. That's amusing, assuming he's talking to people too smart to be taken in by the schemes; the rot in other areas (destroying habitat for animals or humans permanently, the gun culture that kills millions, all of the particularly Florida kinds of corruption and graft and malfeasance) is less amusing, but equally entrenched. Pittman doesn't like any of that, but he doesn't have a muckraker's zeal to fight against it, either. And he's got a long, long catalog of nasty funny things that happened in Florida to run through before the end of his book, carefully organized into thematic groupings so the reader can see all of the depressing similarities.

(Pittman's epigraph is not "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." But it could easily have been.)

So Pittman's book is subtly depressing for a careful reader. I image it's had a lot of uncareful readers, though: people who skim it for the crazy stories, let those reinforce their existing prejudices, and meander on with their little, misinformed lives. We can never do anything about those people. They will always be with us, and much of the time feel like a majority. Perhaps it's good news that, in Florida, they are at least entertaining in their idiocy?

If you want a silly, amusing book about Those Crazy Floridians, Barry has exactly what you need. If you want a deeper understanding of why they're Crazy, even if that doesn't lead to any blueprint to helping them (or you) get any saner, Pittman is the writer for you.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

There are times when my tags are inadequate. Today, for example.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a classic, I think: it was for my generation, a book actually read by millions of Gen Xers as teens -- some because it was assigned in relatively progressive schools, but most because they actually wanted to read it. (It was short, and it had sex in it, and it was funny, and it was about war in a sarcastic way -- all those things appealed to teens then, and may do so still.) I've tagged it as "Literature" and "Science Fiction," even though it's mostly a very thin fictionalization of the author's own experience in Dresden during WWII.

As the first line says: "All this happened, more or less."

But there are space aliens in it -- that's what we used to call them. Maybe we still do. That makes it SF, right? And being famous and a classic About Something Big, well, that makes it Literature, too, right?

Categories are tough, sometimes. Especially with a writer as childishly humanist (or humanly childish) as Vonnegut.

Vonnegut mostly wrote discursive novels: books about a particular voice, and a group of characters.There are events, and they happen in a sequence, but his books were never very plotty. He didn't do villains, for one thing: some of his people were pretty rotten (Like Roland Weary, in this book), but he always told us why they were like that, and he was as sympathetic to them as to everyone else.

Vonnegut is one of the most sympathetic writers imaginable: not just existent, but imaginable.

For literary folks, that means writing about his books means talking about metaphor and themes and structure -- and there is plenty of that in Vonnegut, in those books that seem so discursive and free-flowing, plenty of connections that took hard work on his end. The SF reader, though, wants to know what happened.

Well, this: Billy Pilgrim went off to WWII. Was captured as a POW. Housed deep in a cellar in Dresden, just before an American bombing raid leveled that city and killed hundreds of thousands. Survived the war. Had a life afterward. Was kidnapped by space aliens decades later and put into their zoo as an exhibit, along with a much younger female porn actress. And died.

He didn't experience it in that order. Neither does the reader of Slaughterhouse-Five.

Because, again, it's not about that sequence of events. It's not about what Billy Pilgrim does. "Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future."

That "among" kills me. Every time.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a book about being born into a world where horrible things happen, where you can't stop the horrible things, and where the answer is...well, there's no answer. It just is.

"I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee," Vonnegut writes. I've never said that explicitly to my sons, but I hope I've made it clear.

Maybe I haven't. Maybe you haven't. There's a lot of people in the world today, fifty years after Slaughterhouse-Five, filled with satisfaction and glee by the news of massacres.

And concentration camps.

And horrible treatment of people unlike them.

And pain inflicted deliberately on people they don't like.

So it goes.

Vonnegut would not be surprised by 2019. The details would be different than any he was familiar with, but the general outline of cruelty, pointlessness, bureaucracy, and random horrors would be just what he expected.

That's why we read Slaughterhouse-Five. This is still our world. Vonnegut's voice is still crisp and clear and true, telling us things we should already know, in words we can't gainsay or argue with. That's the childish side of him: he was always able to say his complicated things in simple words, to make them searingly obvious, to repeat them so that we would never forget them.

So let me end with a quote from another Vonnegut novel, the one just before Slaughterhouse, 1968's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:

There's only one rule that I know of, babies — "God damn it, you've got to be kind."

We are all babies. There is only one rule. And we fail at it, every day in every way. So it goes.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Beanworld Omnibus Vol. 2 by Larry Marder

The sad thing about reading comics is that it's usually pretty easy to catch up. Oh, sure, if you suddenly realize in the year 2019 that you like Batman, there's a gigantic pile of stuff from the last eighty years you can read. [1]

But for those of us who like stories by people, the possible pile is much smaller -- in some cases, it might take time to find it all, and maybe even a couple of years to read it. Getting to the end, though, will not be difficult.

So I finally got into Larry Marder's Beanworld last winter -- hit the first omnibus in mid-December and an smaller odds and sods collection a few weeks later -- and then I just had to wait about six months for this book to be published.

It was; I got it; I read it. And now I'm all caught up on Marder's lifetime of comics, a series he's been working on (with some very long gaps) since 1984.

That's what I mean about sad. I got to read two big fat books of Marder comics within a year -- all of them new to me -- and now it could be years before there's another new Beanworld book.

So, here's Beanworld Omnibus, Vol. 2. It collects comics mostly after Marder's Great Hiatus. (He spent the '90s and the front half of the '00s as a comics-industry executive, first riding herd on the Image creators from the central office and then running Todd McFarlane's toy-making empire.) If you don't read Marder's afterword or check the copyright notice, though, that won't be obvious: Beanworld is an organic place, and there's no indications in-story of that big gap. Marder told a few pieces during those years, and came back to continue with the main thread afterward, as if no time had passed.

I don't think it makes much sense for me to talk about the events in these stories. Marder's world is quirky and specific, in a vaguely ecological way, and talking too much about those details will make it sound like an allegory, which it definitely isn't. This world is its own place, with people who have their own lives and problems and concerns: it's not related to ours directly at all. (Indirectly? Well, of course: people and their problems are things we have as well, even if we're not beans living under a giant tree on the edge of a weird pool/ocean.)

So this book has more with Heyoka and the Elusive Notworm, and sees the Pod'l'pool Cuties continue to grow up, change, and show hints of who they might be later on. That will mean nothing if you haven't read the earlier stories, and getting into more detail would be silly for both of us.

Marder's world is real and living, though: it's an organic place, where everything fits together, if not always comfortably or in the ways anyone expects. His beans are people, with the same emotions as you or me -- they're a bit more rational, maybe, a little more likely to use thought rather than violence to solve problems. (Well, except for Mr. Spook, who is of course the most popular character.)

Anyway, the Beanworld is awesome and real and unlike anything else. It took me thirty-five years to finally get around to it. I don't recommend you do the same.


[1] On the other hand, this reaction is much more likely if you're about five, in which case a lot of those stories are inappropriate for you. So you might be in the same boat anyway.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/31/19

More books than usual this time: one came from the library and a stack from a trip to the Strand in NYC. So let me talk about them in that order.

The Library

On a Sunbeam is Tillie Walden's second big book, after Spinning -- her card page also lists The End of Summer and I Love This Part, but I think those are shorter things, single-issue-sized or about there. I read Spinning, a memoir of her childhood spent as a competitive figure-skater, and was really impressed: Walden is the real deal. So I wanted to check out her follow-up, a big book telling what I think is a small-scale SF story.

The Strand


I need to confess here, as I do every time I go to the Strand these days and forget by the next time I make a plan to go. My image of this store is completely wrong. In my head, it's the unique review-copy emporium it was when I first worked in publishing, twenty-five years ago or more, with massive rows of shelves full of half-price current books in the basement and random quirky stuff everywhere else.

It is not that store now. It's a clean, bright standard indy bookstore, larger than the norm but otherwise exactly like several hundred other nice clean bookstores for book-club moms and woke twentysomethings all across the country.

That is a nice bookstore. But I don't care about that bookstore. And the Strand I loved is long gone. What it has instead is rows and rows of tables with new books at a slight discount, all merchandised exquisitely, exactly the books in exactly the current editions that you'd find in B&N or all of those other indies that are just like the Strand now.

So when I look for the books I would find at the old Strand, or even the prices I would find there, I don't have much luck. My trips there are getting shorter and shorter, and I really need to give up. The world has changed; it's not 1995 anymore and never will be again. And making a special trip to see rows of the same books I could see anywhere else is not a good use of time.

I did manage to find a few things before I left, to take my younger son out to dinner at his college (and then, oddly, bring him home for the long Labor Day weekend, even though he only got to college ten days before). Here's what I bought:

A Pound of Paper is a book-focused memoir by the writer John Baxter, who mostly does biographies of movie-makers (Fellini, Kubrick, De Nero, Lucas, etc.) but has also written the "encyclopedia of 20th century sex" Carnal Knowledge and falling-in-love-with-a-Frenchwoman memoir We'll Always Have Paris, both of which I read. (I see in my post about the latter I said that I thought I'd read this book, which is possible: the US cover looks very familiar once I google it.) Anyway, this is a "why I love books so much" book, with probably a lot about digging through bookstores in a misspent youth and suchlike. Maybe by the time I get to it I'll be even fuzzier about whether I read it before. At least I got a nice UK first, sealed in a plastic wrapper, so it's a more collectible edition if I did already read it once.

A Rage in Harlem is the first of the "Harlem Detectives" mystery novels by Chester Himes, which I periodically think I need to read. (Also known by the names of the main characters, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones.) I think I had a stack of these in the earlier (90s) Black Lizard editions, so maybe I'm starting to collect them again.

Forever and a Death is a posthumous book by Donald E. Westlake -- published in 2017, a decade after he died, but written around 1995, originally as a film treatment for a Pierce Brosnan James Bond movie and then novelized to take out other people's IP. I imagine it's not top-drawer Westlake, or it would have been published earlier, but you take what you can get when you make it to the end of a favorite writer's work.

Tetris is a graphic novel by Box Brown, telling the story of the creation of that video game, reputed to be the most popular one in world history. Brown has been doing these quirky non-fiction books for a few years, and I've only read one of them, I think (Andre the Giant). But I keep adding them to my list of books to find, so I grabbed this one (even though it wasn't really on the list) when I found it cheap.

Manfried Saves the Day is the second story of Manfried the Man, a pet in a world of giant anthropomorphic cats and their cute little men. I've seen good reviews of these, they look just oddball enough, and so here I am.

Hewligan's Haircut is the kind of book I expect to find in the Strand: weird, forgotten, random, cheap. It's a 2010 reprinting of a 1990 eight-part story from 2000 AD, written by Peter Milligan and drawn by Jamie Hewlett, about a crazy young man with a haircut that can save the world.

And last was the doorstop Bad Doing & Big Ideas, a gigantic omnibus of Bill Willingham's non-Fables work for Vertigo, with a whole bunch of different artists (Paul Guinan, Shawn McManus, Mark Buckingham, Bernie Wrightson, Kevin Nowlan, and even his own pencils for a few pages). It collects Proposition Player, the two Thessaly mini-series, and some shorter stories around Sandman and House of Mystery, and I've been vaguely looking for it since it was published in 2011 (I didn't want to pay the $50 list price, and I didn't.)

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Books Read: August 2019

Well, I'm only typing this three days late this time, which is an improvement from last month. (Which, if you've forgotten, covered everything from the beginning of February.) Here's what I read in August:

Dave Barry, Best. State. Ever. (8/1)

George O'Connor, Hephaistos: God of Fire (8/2)

Ben Passmore, Your Black Friend and Other Strangers (8/3)

Calvin Trillin and Roz Chast, No Fair! No Fair! and Other Jolly Poems of Childhood (8/4)

David Haviland, The Not-So-Nude Ride of Lady Godiva and Other Morsels of Misinformation from the History Books (8/4)

Ellen Forney, Rock Steady (8/5)

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (in Novels & Stories, 1963-1973, 8/6)

Sebastian Faulks, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells (8/8)

Steven Brust and Skyler White, The Skill of Our Hands (8/13)

Jacques Tardi, I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB (8/16)

Craig Pittman, Oh, Florida! (8/19)

Larry Marder, Beanworld Omnibus, Vol. 2 (8/22)

Steve Erickson, Leap Year (8/23)

Chuck Thompson, Smile When You're Lying (8/30)


Next is...more books, I assume. Probably including the four or five I'm already reading right now.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Quote of the Week: So It Goes

"Billy covered his head with his blanket again. He always covered his head when his mother came to see him in the mental ward -- always got much sicker until she went away. It wasn't that she was ugly, or had bad breath or a bad personality. She was a perfectly nice, standard-issue, brown-haired, white woman with a high-school education.

She upset Billy simply by being his mother. She made him feel embarrassed and ungrateful and weak because she had gone to so much trouble to give him life, and to keep that life going, and Billy didn't really like life at all."
 - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five, p.412 in the Library of America Novels & Stories 1963-1973 omnibus

Thursday, August 29, 2019

I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB, Vol. 1 by Tardi

I probably should say this first: this book is titled I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB, Vol. 1. And it's credited to "Tardi."

One might easily assume "Tardi" means "Rene Tardi," the chap who was a POW. But one would be wrong.

Rene died in 1986, and never drew comics. (There are some of his sketches in the frontmatter here, so I don't want to say he didn't draw anything. He could draw better than me, for one thing.)

This "Tardi" is his son Jacques, who originally used both of those names for his bandes dessinees until the weight of all of those other French cartoonists who only use one name got to be too much for him, and he succumbed to the lure of the single moniker.

Even in a case, like this one, where that creates confusion. Style is more important than anything else, eh mes amis?

Rene POW is a 2012 comic -- translated into English for a 2018 publication in the US -- based on a series of notebooks that Jacques made during conversations with his father in the early '80s. One may presume that he had the idea for this book even then; Jacques Tardi had been a working cartoonist for over a decade at that point. But it took a few more decades for him to get around to it, during years when he told stories about The Great War and Paris detectives and Adele Blanc-Sec and American crime and steampunky super-science and many more.

For a book that claims to be a memoir of WWII, Rene POW has some very odd elements. It starts off with an introduction by Dominique Grange, which is mostly about her father and only secondarily about Rene Tardi. Somewhat later in the book, the reader realizes that Grange is Jacques Tardi's wife, but the book does not explain this explicitly anywhere. In honor of that connection, Rene meets Grange's father in that POW camp later in the book -- they didn't actually meet then in real life, or at least didn't remember it.

And then the book itself is framed as Rene telling the story to Jacques. Rene looks like he did at the time of the war, a strong, angry young man in his uniform, and he narrates the book -- sometimes as a voice coming out of nowhere, sometimes as his young self in the scene. And then Jacques appears as a schoolboy, maybe ten or thirteen, who wanders through the scenes without being part of them, questioning his father in words that mostly seem to be post-Rene's death but sometimes do turn into a conversation between the two men.

So this is neither exactly what Rene wrote nor a true collaboration between the two. It is instead based on notes made while Rene was alive, but full of questions and second thoughts that Jacques only had after his father was dead. But that's the only way to collaborate with the dead: to take everything they did and said, and present it as honestly as possible, while also pointing out the things they didn't do or say.

POW life in WWII was horrible, and the French had it nearly the worst. (The Russians probably had it the absolute worst, and the Americans probably the "best.") Rene Tardi was in Stalag IIB for basically the entire war; he was captured just as France fell. So he has a long time of horrible events to cover here, and they are horrible and unpleasant and full of hideous details.

This is not quite as searing as Tardi's books about World War One; this book is about his own father, who survived the war. But it's still a war story, and it's a reminder of how much war destroys -- not just the people who are killed and the cities that are flattened, but also what's broken in even the people who survive.


[1] Completely unconnected footnote: I realized, when putting together this post, that I don't have a snarky tag for France. (England has There Will Always Be An England, for example, but I tend to use the vaguer Foreigners Sure Are Foreign for the whole rest of the world, which may not be the best plan.) My first thought, since my tags tend to be super-sarcastic and borderline obnoxious, was Wogs Begin at Calais, but that's vastly too offensive.

So, instead, I'm creating the slightly less offensive new tag 246 Kinds of Cheese, in honor of De Gaulle. I trust you will treat this with exactly as much seriousness as it deserves.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Skill of Our Hands by Steven Brust and Skyler White

The most weak-ass world-ruling conspiracy returns in 2017's The Skill of Our Hands, a sequel to 2014's chamber succession drama The Incrementalists. (See that link for my review.) And, this time out, they're slightly more concerned with changing the world than they were in the first book, but they're still not all that good at it.

Let me repeat: after ten thousand years, they're still shit at manipulating history.

In fact, this book starts with the murder of one of them, Phil, the oldest and wisest Incrementalist with the longest unbroken history behind him, giving him centuries of direct experience. He's trying to nudge US border-enforcement policy in a slightly less draconian direction, and all he gets for it is three bullets in the spine.

(If we assume this series is set in the real world, which I admit is not at all fair to authors Steven Brust and Skyler White, we can also extrapolate that whatever the Incrementalists were doing actually made things worse since the time this book chronicles. They do claim to do that, sometimes -- to nudge things in the opposite direction that they want, "countermeddling" in order that some backlash, someday, will do the way they want. Hey! Their minds are immortal; what do they care?)

The Incrementalists each have an unbroken memory stretching back ten thousand years -- though the exact personality accessing that memory tends to only last a few hundred years before being supplanted by a new host's original mind. They share an extradimensional space called the Garden, where they can all access each other's memories -- well, not all of each other's memories, or not consistently, though the rules of how and why particular memories are "seeded" there and what another Incrementalist can "graze" for are still not clear to me. There are two hundred of them, scattered throughout the world. They are not rich; they control no major businesses or nations; they are barely organized at the best of times even though they can walk through each other's subconscious whenever they want to. They all seem to work ordinary jobs as normal people, with Incrementalism as their shared secret hobby, like numismatics or crewel-work. They seem to only rarely work with each other on their meddling projects.

Frankly, if the Garden was a YouTube channel, this series would make more sense: that's about the level of their activities.

The Skill of Our Hands includes a secondary historical plot, following Phil (then called Carter) just before the US Civil War. This mostly serves to show that the Incrementalists never had much influence on anything, and spent their time trying to use their oh-so-carefully-researched "switches" (sense memories that their targets associate with various emotions) in mostly fruitless conversations with people who don't want to change their opinions .

The Incrementalists, bluntly, don't ever run anything, take over anything, gather power or money or fame to themselves. Instead, their aim is to quietly talk, one-to-one, with people who might actually do things, and use tricky smells and humming snatches of songs to make those people do what the Incrementalists want.

As I've now said a couple of times, not even Brust and White claim that this has much effect.

More so: Brust and White don't claim, anywhere that I noticed, any major world movements or moments for their Incrementalists. They are the BASF of conspiracies -- they didn't cause WWII, but they say they made it ever-so-slightly less horrific than it otherwise would have been. And they can prove this by...well, no, actually they can't. They just know that they meddle in things, and, apparently, every once in a while things actually happen the way they're hoping, though that seems to be exceptionally rare from the evidence of these two novels.

In this book, they're once again trying to find a new "second" for a dead Incrementalist, another one killed by violence in just a couple of years in the Western US. There are some unusual aspects to the transition this time, but most of the plot is the same as the first book: the Incrementalists are spiky people who reflexively argue and disagree with each other. So what we have here is mostly three hundred pages, again, of people in rooms talking about how they should interfere with history -- which, again, hardly ever does anything at all -- and what body they should shove Phil's "stub" into -- which, frankly, doesn't seem to matter much at all.

I like reading Brust's prose. His work here with White is just as readable as anything else in his career. And these people are real, entirely well-rounded. The fact that I don't care about their problems is a different issue. The fact that they've spent hundreds of lifetimes doing something that seems entirely useless at its core, though, is something Brust and White should have thought more seriously about before they published two novels about these people.

If they set out to write a snarky object lesson about why pacifist anarchists will never have political power anywhere, good for them. Otherwise, I'm not really sure what the point of this series is.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Rock Steady by Ellen Forney

I grabbed this book because of a misapprehension. I knew that it was the follow-up to Forney's Marbles, a comics memoir of her struggle with bipolar disorder and how she came to find balance.

So, thought I, Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life will be either the story of how her life has changed since then -- either for good or bad, or probably both like all of us -- or maybe a more holistic look at her life from childhood on and how her disorder affected all of it.

I thought wrong.

Rock Steady is a resource book for bipolar people. It's laid out like comics, more or less -- less, frankly, with lots of hand-lettered paragraphs floating next to a borderless drawn image on most of the pages. It has eight chapters that focus on different things that you as a bipolar person need to have in your life to keep you stable and on an even keel, from sleep to therapy to medicine to people that support you.

(Forney has a silly acronym, and an odd little creature to embody it, for all of these things: SMEDMERTS, which stands for Sleep Meds Eat Doctor Mindfulness Exercise Routine Tools Support system.)

It includes several pages of resources at the end, and a whole lot of references in the middle: it's a book about a serious chronic medical condition, by a layman yes, but still something to be taken seriously and that has been studied by many for a long time.

My guess is that this is a great book if you are bipolar, and probably also if someone close to you is bipolar. Forney has lived this, and she has a smart, no-bullshit tone to her work and a cartoonist's eye for simplicity and clean lines.

If you are not bipolar, and are just someone who reads books all the way through because you started them looking for another Ellen Forney memoir, well, you will probably think it's a very useful thing for people who are not you. (Naming no names here.)

Monday, August 26, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/24/19

This time out, it's particularly small beer not only do I only have one book to write about, but it's one I've already mentioned once before.

The book is The Envious Siblings and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes, by Landis Blair, a collection of illustrated stories told in verse in the Edward Gorey vein. It will be published by Norton on Octber 8th. And I saw the proof back in April, giving it all of a Reviewing the Mail post then.

If I had read the book since then, I'd have something new to say about it. But I haven't, yet -- the proof is still up on the shelf, waiting for me.

So: go back to that old post if a new Gorey sounds interesting to you and you missed my post the first time around. Otherwise, I do expect to get to this book soon: it's short, aims to be funny, and I can tell at a glance that Landis draws well. (It's harder to tell about writing, especially verse. For that I'll have to read the thing.)

Friday, August 23, 2019

Quote of the Week: Believe What They Tell You

"They told you it was a war for the soul of America, but you didn't believe them. They kept saying you were the Enemy, but you wouldn't accept that, because you didn't feel like an enemy. Now you know they meant every word, and more."
 -- the opening lines of Steve Erickson's 1997 book American Nomad

Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Not-So-Nude Ride of Lady Godiva & Other Morsels of Misinformation from the History Books by David Haviland

Now, that is a title. I was worried that I couldn't fit it into the little box provided in Blogger: that's how long it is. And it will probably look gigantic at the top of this post.

This is yet another "odd fact" book: I read them pretty regularly, in the obvious household location for books that you can pick up and read for a few minutes and put down again for a day or two.

The Not-So-Nude Ride of Lady Godiva & Other Morsels of Misinformation from the History Books purports to be a "you think X is true? well, let me tell you about Y!" book, but it's not actually written that way. Instead, each mini-essay just tells the story of that historical thing -- Lady Godiva's ride or Joan of Arc's crimes, the Indian Mutiny and the Children's Crusade, the Great Leap Forward and Jack Ketch -- under a headline written as a question. I have no idea why: it's not quite a bait-and-switch, since the book is about quirky historical information that the average reader will not know, but the positioning is pretty weird.

One thing I can say: this is in a loose series, which may have influenced that positioning. First was Why You Shouldn't Eat Your Boogers & Other Useless or Gross Information About Your Body, by Francesca Gould, and it was followed by Gould's Why Fish Fart (long descriptive subtitles silently suppressed from this point) and Why Dogs Eat Poop and Why You Should Store Your Farts in a Jar, both by Gould and Haviland together.

So it looks like Gould wrote one book, it was popular, she continued, she got tired of doing it all herself and then got tired of doing it at all. (This is assuming I have the sequence right: Lady Godiva is from 2012, so I might be mixing things up temporally.) Once Haviland took it all over, the focus shifted from "gross and useless" (possibly because that vein was exhausted) to "quirky and unusual."

Frankly, I don't care all that deeply, but I used to do this for a living -- reading books, positioning them, arguing about titles, trying to hook reader interest -- so the inside-baseball questions are often more interesting to me than writing about the book itself.

I mean, the book is fine: it's got a lot of stories, all of which are true as far as I know, about interesting historical events that mostly didn't go the way Joe Average thinks they did or would think they did if Joe thought about it much. It's divided into ten vague thematic chapters, each one arranged chronologically, and it's a fun, zippy read.

It was eminently suited for the use I put it to: that's what I'm saying. It does the job, and might even have shoved a few sticky facts into my brain. So good for it!