Friday, October 16, 2020

Quote of the Week: Never Thought You'd Be Alone This Far Down the Line

And, to her surprise, she could now see that their photograph collection was really pretty good. She stopped before her favorite, a picture of a sand castle competition that must have been held at the turn of the last century. There were very few children visible -- one little girl in the foreground, wearing a knee-length dress and a sun hat that might have been made out of newspaper -- and the competition seemed to have drawn a crowd of thousands. (Would Ros tell her that this, too, was the best day in some poor coal miner's life, the day he had a front-row view of the Gooleness sand castle competition in 1908?) But Annie's eye was always drawn to a woman over on the right, kneeling on the ground, working on a church steeple, in what looked like a full-length overcoat and a peasant sun hat that made her seem as sad and as destitute as an old peasant in the Vietnam war. You're dead now, Annie always thought when she saw her. Do you wish you hadn't wasted your time doing that? Do you wish you'd thought, "Fuck the lot of them," and taken your coat off so you could have felt the sun on your back? We're here for such a short amount of time. Why do we spend any of it building sand castles? She would waste the next two hours, because she had to, and the she would never waste another second of however much time she had left to her. Unless somehow she ended up living with Duncan again, or doing this job for the rest of her working life, or watching EastEnders on a wet Sunday, or reading anything that wasn't King Lear, or painting her toenails, or taking more than a minute to choose something from a restaurant menu, or.... It was hopeless, life, really. It was set up all wrong.
 - Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked, pp.147-148

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Reading into the Past: 1999

This is something I used to do, back in the early days of the blog. I thought it was fun, and a silly way to look at a random grouping of books -- something like taking a picture of a shelf and writing about the books there.

It fell out of the rotation pretty quickly, particularly as I started writing more seriously about the new books I was reading, but it's been in the back of my head as something I should try again. So here I am.

I'm still not reading at a volume that regularly gives me books to write about -- I will probably finish a novel today (Sunday, October 11), but I'd like to write a blog post before that. And I didn't write anything yesterday; if you want to do something regularly, you need to make mechanisms to keep you doing that, so it becomes a habit.

For all those reasons, I'm looking to bring Reading into the Past back, and do it once a week. I'll be using a random number generator to pick a year between December of 1990 (when I started keeping up a reading notebook, six months out of college and freshly laid off from an office that moved itself bodily to Detroit) to 2010 (roughly when I started writing about everything I read, and giving me a 20-year stretch).

This week, it's 1999, a princely year. Here's what I was reading in the days leading up to October 14, 1999:

Peter Cannon, Forever Azathoth and Other Horrors (unbound signatures, 10/7)

Cannon wrote Scream for Jeeves, a very funny Lovecraft/Wodehouse mashup, a few years before this, and I did it in the SFBC along with Cannon's somewhat straighter Pulptime (also Lovecraftian) in an omnibus called The Lovecraft Chronicles. Forever Azathoth was a new collection of humorous takes on Lovecraftian themes, and, as I recall, was also quite good -- not as sublime as Scream for Jeeves, but that was a short tightrope act to begin with. I clearly was reading this for work, but I know I didn't buy it for work, so my guess is, twenty years later, that the huddled masses of SFBC members did not buy Lovecraft Papers in the quantities they were supposed to. I'm pretty sure I don't have a copy of Forever Azathoth anymore: it went beneath the waves in 2011.

A.A. Milne, When We Were Very Young (10/8)

See below.

A.A. Milne, Now We Are Six (10/9)

At this point, I had one son, who was just eighteen months old. I wasn't actually reading anything much to him yet -- toddlers are not the most engaged audience -- but I was clearly preparing for that. I think of myself as not super-sentimental, but I do love the four little Milne books: these two books of poetry (well, doggerel, mostly; you love these only if you encountered them first when you were too young to know better) and then the two, much better, books of Winnie-the-Pooh stories. These were lying around my sons' rooms during their childhoods, so I've read bits and pieces of both of them a lot more than most things. I imagine I was reading them at this point since I was running a Book-A-Day streak, and short books of verse for children is an easy win there.

Deborah Christian, The Truthsayer's Apprentice (bound galleys, 10/10)

No unaided memory of this at all, I'm sorry to say. I'll Google and then type some more...Oh, this is sad. Christian wrote a few SFF novels in the mid-90s, starting with Mainline, and this book was supposed to launch her big fantasy series. But there was no second book -- though it does look like she came back with a new novel last year, Splintegrate (though the SFE claims that was originally published in 1997, so ???). Anyway, this was some manner of secondary-world fantasy, probably somewhat epic. If I still had my reader's reports, I'd tell you more -- but I lost all of them in the 2011 flood as well.

Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (10/11)

The memoirs, mostly of The Great War, from the author of I, Claudius (and a bunch of other stuff that is mostly not read today). As I recall, there were warring editions around that time -- perhaps a newer critical or corrected edition had just come out, or differences between the US and UK editions were still ranging seventy years later? I remember reading one version of it and then seeing a clearly different version in a bookstore a year or so later, and having that moment of wondering if I wanted to read it again. That aside, I understand that this is still one of the great WWI memoirs.

(After poking about: there's a 1929 edition and a 1957 edition. In the eternal way of the world, older Graves toned down some of his commentary about specific people in the 1957 edition, perhaps because they were then rich and/or influential. I think the one I read, sadly, was the 1957 -- so I may need to revisit this eventually.)

Rudy Rucker, Saucer Wisdom (10/12)

I have trouble remembering which Rudy Rucker novel is which: he's a writer with a distinctive style and set of concerns, so, except for obvious things like The Hollow Earth (a Poe sequel, more or less), all of Rucker's novels are about semi-bohemian people in the near future engaging in odd adventures with mathematically unlikely creatures and realms, often with mildly dystopian backgrounds which are only rarely the focus of the books. I'm sure this was one of them; it was new at the time. I suspect from the fact that I read it as a finished book that it was not being considered for the SFBC, which is slightly sad: Rucker is a zany, unique, wonderful writer whose work I've loved for thirtyish years but he's never been as popular as I think he should be. (Rucker is, to be really reductive, the bastard stepchild of John Sladek and Robert Sheckley on one side and Edwin Abbott and Lewis Carroll on the other.)

This reminds me I have two Rucker novels on my shelf that I could read -- they might come up in the rotation.

Jim Paul, Medieval in LA (10/13)

No memory at all, so off to Google to figure out what this was: Ah! Paul is the author of Catapult, a wonderful mid-90s book about building a siege weapon with a buddy and then testing it. This was his follow-up, a narrative non-fiction book organized around a weekend trip to LA and mostly consisting of digressions about the differences between the medieval world-view and the one he saw in the world in 1997. I still don't remember it, but I have a vague Catapult-shaped memory that may incorporate things that were actually in this book.

Italo Calvino, t zero (10/14)

If there were any questions that I tended to skew to the literary side of SFF, I trust this will prove it. I haven't read as much Calvino as sometimes I think I'd like to, but I've enjoyed his game-like story sequences, particularly the ones that are closest to "science fiction." This is one of those collections.

I'm also surprised to see that Calvino had been dead for a while when I read this: he died in 1985, at only 61. I forget that his major works were from the '60s and '70s; maybe because that was my own childhood, so that era is baseline "normal" to me in a way, and everything else since then is lived history.

That's what I read this week, twenty-one years ago. The younger Andy Wheeler got through a lot more books than the 2020 version does: he had a long commute, eyes still able to focus on a page for hours at a time, and the habit of sitting down, every day off, in a chair and powering through five hundred pages of manuscript. I miss being that guy, for (some of) those reasons and several more.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

I am quite possibly the last person in the world to read Nick Hornby's 2009 novel in bound galley [1] form. My copy of Juliet, Naked doesn't have a publisher letter stuck in it, so my guess is that I picked it up at BEA at the Javitz center back in May of 2009 -- it's not a book I would in any reasonable world be sent for review, but definitely one that would have large stacks at BEA for the massed hordes to make off with.

Juliet, Naked was published in September of 2009. I didn't read it then. A paperback edition came out about a year later, but I already had this sort-of paperback and didn't read it then, either. Hornby's next novel, Funny Girl, came out in 2014. I bought that in hardcover and still haven't read it, either. And I see that he's had new novels last year and this that I didn't even know about.

But, as I'm fond of saying these days, the earliest you can do anything is today, and I did now read Juliet, Naked. (In a format that definitely has more typos and formatting errors than the standard, and may also be missing other last-minute edits to the final book.)

Like Hornby's other books, it's about people's messy lives, primarily their romantic entanglements, without being anything like a romance or a break-up book, either. Hornby characters are all at least borderline obsessives, when they have something to be obsessed about, and they're deeply real people in the way they put their heads down to get on with their lives and then blinkingly realize a decade or so has passed with seemingly nothing to show for it.

(His people are all also typically white, hetero and middle-class, which may be one reason why I've been drawn to his work: we read the books that mirror us. Not saying this is a great thing, but signposting it, particularly for those of you looking for different mirrors.)

Juliet, Naked is the story of a love triangle. Annie, the curator of a small seaside museum in the dull town of Gooleness (somewhere in the North of England), has been living with Duncan for fifteen years, and loves him, she supposes, basically, as one does.

Duncan teaches at some kind of institution in Gooleness: probably whatever the British equivalent of a community college is, since it seems to be post-secondary. The great passion of his life is for the music of Tucker Crowe, an American singer-songwriter who had five albums over the course of a decade but then dropped out of public life suddenly during the tour for his greatest album, Juliet, in 1986.

Duncan is one of the leading lights of a website devoted to Tucker, the kind of thing that has probably migrated to Facebook these days. Duncan, and perhaps a hundred others (all men, primarily in their thirties and forties now, twenty years after Juliet), obsessively talk about those five albums, about various bootlegged concerts and the difference in live versions of songs, about rumors of what Tucker has been doing since then, and similar things. Tucker is generally assumed, Salinger-like, to have been creating stuff since then, which his fans are dying to see and critique.

And then the first new record by Tucker in twenty years is announced: Juliet, Naked, a collection of Tucker's original solo demos. Duncan gets an early copy, and writes the first review of it anywhere: he loves it and thinks this is Tucker's real masterwork.

Annie is not a Tucker fan at Duncan's level: who is? (No woman, for one thing.) But she has been listening to Juliet for ages, obviously, and she has surprisingly strong opinions on Naked. So, after some mildly contentious conversations with Duncan, she writes up what she thinks (TL; DR: sketches are inferior to the final product) and posts it to the same website.

And then, a day or so later, she gets an email from Tucker, agreeing with her.

Tucker has been living with various women for the past couple of decades -- he seems to settle in with one, have a child or twins, and then let the relationship sour over the course of four or five years until she kicks him out. He refers to these as marriages, but there seems very little actual legal structure to any of these relationships. His current marriage, to Cat, is circling the drain, though it did produce a son, Jackson, now six years old -- and Tucker's self-worth is pretty inextricably bound up with being Jackson's dad, since he has nothing else.

He hasn't been secretly writing and recording songs. He hasn't been secretly doing anything. As far as I can tell, he hasn't even worked a day at any kind of job, creative or otherwise, since he famously walked out of a club in Minneapolis on that Juliet tour. He has been existing, and creating offspring -- he now has five, from four different mothers -- but that seems to be it. (This is perhaps the least likely aspect of the novel; it's difficult to picture an American man spending more than two decades doing absolutely nothing.) Well, he did get sober at some point during that stretch, which is not nothing.

Annie falls in love with Tucker's emails, before too long. Well, he's charming: that's his fatal flaw.

Annie's relationship with Duncan frays and severs. So does Tucker's with Cat. Tucker's relationships with his older children and various exes become more important, with that break and other shifts -- they all stay in touch, more or less, sharing the parental responsibilities he's been dodging for years.

Eventually, Tucker and Jackson end up in England, for a good-enough reason. In Gooleness, because Annie came to see Tucker, and that gave Tucker one more chance to run away from something.

And, at that point in the novel, it's pretty clear Tucker has been running, whenever he had a chance, since that day in 1986. But the novel Juliet, Naked might just be the story of how he stops running.

Maybe. Or maybe he just walks, at a slower pace.

Hornby's characters are rarely "happy," in the same ways people in real life aren't "happy." Happiness is a moment, not a state, and life is full of a million other less-pleasant moments, too. So a reader expecting Annie to "cure" Tucker or for the two of them to settle down blissfully together on either side of the Atlantic is looking in the wrong book.

Juliet, Naked, again, is the story of a love triangle. And of a much more complex love shape surrounding Tucker, including the twenty-years-dead relationship with the woman who inspired Juliet and may, perhaps, not have been the amazingly wonderful perfect goddess that record seems to imply. (And who is?) But, mostly, it's the story of people who got stuck in their lives, and what happens at the moment they suddenly stick their heads up, realize how stuck they are, and try to do something about it.

[1] This is an antiquated term, and was an antiquated term when this edition was available. Then, it was an "uncorrected proof" or an "advance review copy." These days, I wonder how many books get a physically printed pre-publication publicity edition at all.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Quote of the Week: Mourning

They buried Parradan Smith in a separate grave and piled a cairn of stones to mark it, on Burnbright's advice, she being the nearest expert on Mount Flame City gang customs. They felt badly leaving him there, in the shadow of the black mountain. Still, there is only so much one can do for the dead without joining them.
 - Kage Baker, The Anvil of the World, p.57

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Uncle Fred in the Springtime by P.G. Wodehouse

I've written a lot about P.G. Wodehouse here over the years, mostly in reading through Overlook's marvelous Collector's Wodehouse series -- I believe they republished all or basically all of his hundred-plus books over the first couple of decades of this century in matching small hardcovers.

I've even written a bit about Wodehouse's series character Uncle Fred (the puckish Earl of Ickenham, who can accomplish anything, absolutely anything, in the springtime), with the novels Service with a Smile and Uncle Dynamite. But I seem to have read this book, the last time around, well before I started this blog fifteen years ago.

And, frankly, I don't think I can do justice to Uncle Fred in the Springtime here: it's one of Wodehouse's best novels, in which all of the gears of his plots mesh perfectly, his characters are amusingly quotable, the random observations are funny and true, and the sunniest of all possible worlds shines before us as if it could possibly be real.

It's about young people in love, of course, as with the best of Wodehouse. But also about the old people around them: the friendly ones, like Ickenham, trying to help them along to bliss. The grumpy ones, like the Duke of Dunstable, who must be gotten around to allow his nephew to marry. And the scatterbrained ones, like Lord Emsworth, who would be far happier if left just to think about and care for his beloved prize-winning pig, the Empress of Blandings.

There are impostors and the theft of the aforementioned pig. There is a major betting flurry on the clothing worn by a random gent temporarily trapped in a phone booth in the lobby of the Drones Club. There is a private detective who does not fit quite so smoothly into polite rural society as one might wish.

I'm not sure if Uncle Fred counts as a distinct series in Wodehouse's work, or if it's best characterized as an offshoot or cadet branch of the Blandings stories. There may perhaps be a major scholarly disagreement on exactly that point. But Uncle Fred is a wonderful character, and a character who shows to Jeeves-and-Wooster fans that Wodehouse had other arrows in his comedy quiver: he could spin complications almost as easily out of a man who could always talk his way out of trouble as he could with a man always talking his way into it.

This is a marvelous, funny book. Would that we all had Uncle Freds to smooth our paths, and that we could live forever in the Wodehousian springtime.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Earworm of the Day

We all get songs stuck in our heads. And when we do, we have the bizarre urge to share those songs, as if it were a parasite that could be induced to jump hosts.

So: here's what's been stuck in my head all day:

Note for people of my generation: yes, that is Merv Griffin singing; his first career was as a singer. The world is weird.

Note for people younger than me: yes, this is precisely as bizarre and random as you think it is. It's a novelty one-off song, despite sounding like it came from the middle of some 1950s musical.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

Funny can age badly, because what each generation thinks is funny changes. The more generations, the more change, and eventually we need learned professors to explain to us that Shakespeare is approximately 15% dick-and-vagina jokes by volume.

The Dud Avocado is a humorous novel, in the based-on-my-life style, set in the early 1950s in Paris, narrated by a madcap young would-be actress named Sally Jay Gorce. How much of it is "really" what happened to author Elaine Dundy and how much is a fictionalization...who can say at this point? And who would care? What matters now is whether the people still connect, whether the funny stuff is still funny, the thoughtful stuff still thoughtful, and the emotional stuff still true.

The edition I read, the 2006 New York Review of Books trade paperback [1], notes that Dud Avocado is one of those cult novels that gets re-issued with minor fanfare every decade or so, and then mostly sinks beneath the waves before the next burst of cult interest. (Of course, most sixty-year-old books don't even get that: they got a first publication, and maybe a paperback, and possibly a reissue with the next book from the author, and then nothing at all from then on.) Terry Teachout, who said that in his introduction, makes it sound like a sad thing, but it's actually how novels live, for all but the biggest, most ubiquitous writers. They pop in and out of print, in and out of public discourse, because we can't think about or talk about everything at once.

So Dud Avocado has stayed alive. It's been rediscovered multiple times, by two more generations, including a lot of people who didn't get to run off to Paris on family money the way Sally Jay (and maybe Dundy) did. So no matter what I say about it, my questions above about people and funny and thoughtful and emotional are "yes," for a sizable number of people, as recently as 2006. (And, to be frank, "people" is me being deliberately vague: I think Dundy and Dud Avocado speak more clearly to women than to men, more directly to young people than older people.)

Sally Jay is willful and scattered and free-wheeling and all-too-easily led, enthusiastic and prone to fall in love at the drop of a hat and enamored with her own bohemianism. She's also not nearly as self-reflective as she seems to be: I'm not sure whether that's Dundy's point or not. Even this far back, the scatterbrained young woman -- pretty enough for a lot of men to be interested in her, nutty enough to drive a lot of them away, clumsy as the standard endearing/quirky trait -- was the model, though I don't know if modern romantic comedy got that from Dundy or if there's an earlier incarnation I'm forgetting at the moment. She's a modern enough woman to fall into bed without much trouble, and Sally Jay seems to enjoy it though Dundy (writing in 1958, let's remember) leaves it clear that there was a falling-into-bed without saying much more.

The story of Dud Avocado is Sally Jay: her voice, her misadventures, her emotions, her love-affairs, all in one tangled ball. The through-line, such as it is, is bound up in an old friend named Larry Keevil: she meets him again in Paris on page 1, falls in love with him in the first chapter, gets pulled into his schemes (and vice versa) for a few hundred pages, wanders through Paris and some provincial towns doing things that may be scandalous to herself or her relatives back home or even the locals, and eventually learns unpleasant truths about Larry near the end. Those are all things that happen; what matters is how Sally Jay tells us about them and how she feels about them.

She's a mess, in that unformed early-twenties way: unsure what she wants but determined to get it right now. The whole book is in her voice, and the reader has to be able to go with that: to sympathize with what a less kind reader might call a sex-mad spoiled rich white girl on a tear overseas, sowing wild oats madly before inevitably settling down to domesticity and a blandly conventional American marriage. (Spoiler alert: there is something like settling down at the very end of the book, somewhat abruptly, though I misrepresent it here. It feels like Dundy knew she needed to end the book and wasn't able to figure out something more plausible than her own random marriage to theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, and so just fictionalized that as best she could.)

I found Sally Jay a fun protagonist to spend 250 pages with, though she'd be exhausting in real life. (I went to Vassar; I knew girls not a million miles from Sally Jay.) I'm a huge fan of novels written in distinctive voices, and Dud Avocado hits all of those buttons. And, frankly, a lot of it was still funny, to a man born twenty years later, who never had a rich uncle to send him anywhere. I imagine even more of it would be funny to readers closer to the life Sally Jay lives, and I expect there will be another new edition of Dud Avocado in 2025 or so, popping it back up for the attention of yet another generation.

[1] For the people like me who wondered: no, the cover photo is not Dundy. It's an unnamed model in New York in 1962, photographed by Erwin Blumenfeld. I guess mid-century is mid-century, right? 1951 Paris, 1962 New York, comme ci, comme ca?

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Basd Machinery, Book 8: The Case of the Modern Men by John Allison

I always ponder how far to get into history and minutia when I'm writing about, say, the eighth volume collecting a webcomic.

I mean, on the one hand I can just say go read the webcomic already, which is perfectly legitimate. But it makes for a very short post, if nothing else.

Or I can delve into the history of Bad Machinery, linking to my posts on the previous volumes (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven), talking about how it was the follow-up to creator John Allison's previous webcomic Scary-Go-Round (q.v.), and possibly even sidetracking into a discussion of the only-vaguely-related Giant Days (viz.).

It is a puzzlement.

So, instead, I'll pretend to consider both options while actually putting them both in this post, and then dive into the current book: The Case of the Modern Men, the eighth case of the Tackleford Mystery Tweens Teens. It ran in the webcomic in early-mid 2014, with the core cast clearly teenaged and (as usual for teens) somewhat less interested in solving weird external mysteries and somewhat more interested in the more fleshy mysteries of their various innamorata (which, as also is usual with teens, were sometimes each other, though, also sadly usual, never reciprocally).

This story combines French exchange students with the thrill of the Mod lifestyle, in clothing and scooters and the music of The Whom. (Allison's world is much like, but not exactly the same as, our own.) Lottie's family hosts Mimi; Little Claire's hosts Camille. Those two young women had a previous conflict which flourishes quirkily in the fertile Tackleford soil. There is a fabled scooter that may perhaps be cursed, so that every rider becomes King of the Mods and is eventually beheaded.

The Mystery Teens do not exactly try to solve the mystery as try to help their friends, to stave off a riotous Rocker-Mod conflict throughout the surrounding borough, and to foil one of those French young women in her fiendish plans. In the end, at least no one is beheaded, and there have been some kisses exchanged.

In retrospect, this (or possibly the prior story, The Case of the Forked Road) is where Bad Machinery started coming apart. Allison always sets his stories in something like real time, so his cast will inevitably grow and change -- and he tends to write about young people (tweens, teens, twenties), so they have a lot of changing to do, and can do it very quickly. So when I say "coming apart," I mean the premise -- kids solve crimes -- rather than anything on the story level.

Here they were no longer kids. After an event in this story, solving crimes had much less appeal. And that's clear from the Bad Machinery page on Allison's site: right after this case, there was a sidebar story about Lottie and Shauna called "Space Is the Place," then one more case, then another sidebar (more of a Bobbins story, actually) under the ominous title "The Big Hiatus," and then the final Bad Machinery case.

Some creators -- naming no names here -- are content to keep their characters exactly the same age, in exactly the same relationships, for decades at a time, and many of them rake in buckets of sweet, sweet syndication money. (Or the trusts established to keep their descendants from ever working again do, in some cases.) John Allison will have no truck with that, and his work is vastly stronger for it. Every Allison story is set in a moment that will not recur -- just like every moment in each of our own real lives.

So I'm sad, even re-reading half a decade later, to remember that Bad Machinery must inevitably end. But all things must inevitably end. Allison is just better at the process along the way than many others.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Fifteenth Anniversaries

Yesterday, while doing something else, I realized today was the fifteenth anniversary of this blog.

Now, I was once in the habit of writing long, discursive, link-filled posts for anniversaries -- see the entries for the first, second, third, fourth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth years. But last year I dropped the ball, and (quirkily enough) I also bobbled the supposedly-significant fifth (missed entirely) and tenth (forgotten until a month later) years as well, as if some part of my brain was quite clearly sabotaging me.

I would typically list the number of posts by year after that, know what? I will update that here:

2019-2020 -- 55 posts
2018-2019 -- 178 posts
2017-2018 -- 368 posts
2016-2017 -- 263 posts
2015-2016 -- 144 posts
2014-2015 -- 258 posts
2013-2014 -- 434 posts
2012-2013 -- 285 posts
2011-2012 -- 332 posts
2010-2011 -- 445 posts
2009-2010 -- 711 posts
2008-2009 -- 880 posts
2007-2008 -- 834 posts
2006-2007 -- 841 posts
2005-2006 -- 809 posts

I would previously then add in the posts from my other blog, Editorial Explanations, which ran from 2011 through 2013. But those numbers will not change now, so anyone who cares (no one) can look at one of the older posts to see the numbers.

And then I'd link back to posts of the past year, indulging myself by quoting sentences I particularly liked. Since the pickings are pretty meager the past couple of years -- not to mention the fact that my fingers are racing to get done before The Wife and I run out for the weekly grocery-shopping -- I'll leave that off this year.

But I'm counting this as not a failure this year, since I actually remembered ahead of time. It might be smaller, it might be less impressive, but it is a thing that exists, and that's good enough for me in the annus horribilis 2020.

Friday, October 02, 2020

Quote of the Week: Did Not Even Adjust Its Blood Level Away

(If I got angry at myself for being angry I would be angry constantly and I wouldn't have time to think about anything else.)
(Wait, I think I am angry constantly. That might explain a lot.)
 - Martha Wells, Network Effect, p.205

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Carrizozo: An Illustrated History by Rick Geary

Carrizozo is the country seat of Lincoln, which comprises a full quarter of the state of New Mexico. But it's a small town, once a moderately important stop on a then-important train line and now a place best described as quaint and artsy, cheap enough for artistic types from across the country to move to and make their stuff there.

This book exists because of one of them: the cartoonist Rick Geary. Geary moved to Carrizozo a decade or so ago -- I think from San Diego, though he was originally born in Kansas City. And he clearly likes the place enough to research and draw a sixty-page book about it.

But, for the rest of us, this is the cartoon version of those small-published books that sit in the Local History section of the independent book store,  the ones typically with old-timey sepia photos of local landmarks on the cover and a lot of random local trivia (local famous families and how long some of them have been mayor! what that big stone building in the center of town was originally! careful tap dancing around a despicable history of racial animus! historical photos of groups of people, some of whom you may be distantly related to!).

Which is to say: this is a book that I assume will be sold in Carrizozo's local tourist office, and was sold to Geary's nutty fans [1], and otherwise will be beneath the notice of everyone else in the world. (And, let's be honest: every single book is beneath the notice of the vast majority of the world. Only a tiny few of them will ever hit 10% market penetration, the marketer in me wants to point out.)

So: Carrizozo! Jewel of the Tularosa Basin! Named for a local plant, with an extra "zo" thrown on the end for emphasis! Once site of a major roundhouse for the mighty El Paso and Southwestern Railway! Peaking in population at 2000 in 1920! [2] This is the book that will tell you all those things and more.

I can honestly say that this is the only book about Carrizozo you will ever need, unless by some bizarre quirk of fate you are the town historian of Carrizozo. If, by some bizarre chance, you are the town historian of Carrizozo, please update your website to include your name.

I don't have my usual Amazon link this time, but, if you are as nutty as I am, Carrizozo: An Illustrated History can be purchased directly from the author's website.

[1] Of whom I clearly am one. I debated backing the Kickstarter for quite a while: I usually back Geary's as soon as I see them, but I was close to the deadline on this one. Of course, how long you debated before doing a silly thing is obviously not evidence that you didn't do the silly thing.

[2] I live in what's considered a small town in New Jersey, and we have 10,000 people here. You likely live somewhere as large or larger; most people do.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Night and the Music: The Matthew Scudder Stories by Lawrence Block

Matthew Scudder is a creature of novels. All series characters have a length they work best in -- short novels, long novels, novelettes, short stories, drabbles. And Scudder's creator Lawrence Block has characters that work at different lengths: Bernie Rhodenbarr is made for short, frothy novels; Martin Ehrengraf for sharp short stories; and Keller, in my opinion, for novellas.

And, again, Scudder is a creature of novels -- medium-length mysteries (or thrillers, some of the time), with depth of characterization, larger casts, and room for the moral dilemmas that are most important to his stories. Scudder is an ex-cop, a product of the murky 1970s, and has a complicated relationship with honesty, sobriety, and the law -- but a very deep, central relationship with doing the right thing, which has led him down a lot of roads as an unlicensed private eye. He was created for an initial clutch of three novels -- The Sins of the FathersTime to Murder and Create, and In the Midst of Death -- and has appeared in fourteen more in the five decades since.

But Scudder also appeared in three novellas, during the initial book hiatuses of the late '70s and early '80s, and, as Block's most popular character, also popped up in shorter, slighter pieces since then.

The Night and the Music was published in 2011, around the same time as the last Scudder novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, to collect all of those bits of string between two covers. There's since been one Scudder novella published as a book, A Time to Scatter Stones, but I believe that's it. It came out from Telemachus Press, a self-publishing outfit. Block has since published a lot of books himself, both his old quirky backlist and some new books -- those have tended since to be more clearly published by the author, since that's a good trust signal to his audience.

Night opens with the three strongest stories -- all novelette length -- and then drops into shorter pieces, some of which Block actually calls "vignettes" in his informative afterword. All of it is in strong Block prose, all of it is interesting, all of it features Scudder. But most of it is not stories in the clearest sense: it's a record of a few things that happened with Scudder in them, and most of the time, those things include one death and the way Scudder figures out details of that death. Some of the pieces don't even have that.

But this is the rest of Scudder. If you've read the seventeen novels, this is what's left. And those three stories up front are actually really good -- though the third one, "By the Dawn's Early Light," formed the core of the novel When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, and so will likely be familiar to Scudder fans. Those three stories are also about half the book; the other eight pieces take up roughly the other hundred pages here.

If you're a Scudder fan, and didn't know this book existed, I imagine you're happy. If you're not a Scudder fan, try Nine Million Ways to Die or The Sins of the Father or When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. He is, as I've said twice before, really a creature of novels.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Berlin, Book Three: City of Light by Jason Lutes

I keep hitting reading roadblocks, no matter what I do. I used to have a life with a lot of dedicated time for reading and eyes that could stare at pages of text for hours on end, but the past decade has repeatedly broken all of my reading mechanisms, culminating in the minor apocalypse of the past two years. I went from reading 433 books in the Book-A-Day year of 2018 to, um, 43 the year afterward. And 2020 could possibly be even worse.

On top of that, I keep finding new things to stymie me. For example, who would predict that a graphic novel about Berlin sliding into fascism, intolerance, and sectarian violence in the early '30s would be so resonant, and unpleasant, in 2020?

I'm sure Jason Lutes, planning out this giant project back in 1996, would have expected and wanted modern history to go differently, but, as it is, Berlin Book Three: City of Light is immediately relevant to 2020 in ways that are deeply dispiriting and depressing.

Worse for me, the fact that this is the third of three books collecting a story that has been running for over twenty years -- and the fact that Lutes uses a naturalistic style and doesn't go out of his way to introduce characters that I last saw in a book I read in 2008 (see my review on ComicMix) -- means that I only have a vague sense of who these people are and what they're doing. It's a couple of years later in their own lives as well, since Light is set in 1933 and Smoke was mostly set in 1930.

So I respected City of Light and I appreciated City of Light but I had the damndest time getting myself to read City of Light. I don't want to see characters I like struggling as their society plunges into a totalitarian hellhole. (If I want that, I can just read Twitter.)

And let me say explicitly what I alluded to in my review of City of Smoke and what Lutes never says, but hangs ominously over the whole enterprise: every character we like in Berlin is probably doomed. They will all be killed by the Nazis, one way or another, sooner or later.

That's what Berlin is about. How fascism smashes norms, destroys lives, agitates its followers and gets them to do the unspeakable in the name of blood and country. It's a powerful message, especially in 2020, but I don't want to read about it right now.

The way to read Berlin now is to get the big single-volume edition and run right through it -- that will solve my problems of character identification. The other problems, I hope, will start to be solved on November 3rd, and not by a book.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Quote of the Week: It Was Already This Bad in 1997

America wearies of democracy. Thirty years after a war that wounded its heart, twenty years after a scandal that scarred its conscience, ten years after fiscal policies that ridiculed its sense of responsibility and fairness, the country has nearly exhausted the qualities by which democracy survives and flourishes. America feels at the end of its power, and the result is a hysteria of which we're barely conscious, a hysteria in which democracy appears as a spectacle of impotence and corruption. As Americans we have come to act more oppressed by freedom than exhilarated by it, more concerned with freedom from than freedom to. We divide between the vast and growing majority of us who -- out of a sense of futility, confusion, or indifference -- are so disengaged from democracy we never vote at all, and those of us who vote not to thoughtfully resolve complicated issues but to express our rage.
 - Steve Erickson, American Nomad, p.29

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Knickers in a Twist: A Dictionary of British Slang by Jonathan Bernstein

Hey wait -- I just realized the oddest thing about this 2006 book by an ex-pat British writer then living in LA. It was originally published first in the UK.

Don't...don't they already understand their own slang? Wouldn't that be like Random Penguin publishing Shit Americans Say? Who would actually buy that?

(In other news: I haven't worked in trade publishing for a decade, and clearly my is-this-a-viable-product detector is no longer reliable, since this is a thing that happened already.)

Anyway: the book is Knickers in a Twist. The author is Jonathan Bernstein, who I think is the same guy who wrote Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector.

It collects a whole bunch of both current and recent-historical slang used by people in various corners of the UK -- pretty much all things that people who are not yet dead might actually say or at least clearly remember people saying within their lifetimes -- organized into about three dozen thematic chapters to make looking for a term alphabetically more difficult but with an index to make that possible again. Bernstein apparently relied on his own knowledge and asking other British people for research, with possibly an intensive program of taking notes while watching Carry On movies and Two Ronnies re-runs.

I am not British. So if I say that this book seemed entirely plausible to me, as a person living in an entirely different country with a somewhat different culture who has a vague interest in words-in-general and Britishness in particular...well, you can add as many grains of salt as your taste requires.

It is often funny, and it's a quick read, and it will at the very least introduce or re-introduce you to some colorful terms that you can use in your own life, probably confusing everyone around you. I read it in the smallest room of the house, and it was admirably suited to that purpose. I can enthusiastically recommend it on those bases.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker

My biggest surprise: that I'm still angry that Kage Baker died, even a decade later. It was so senseless, so clearly wrong, that I wish I believed in some anthropomorphic personification so that I could blame that being for doing something so horrible. But I don't, and I know the world is pointless and random, that cruelty is only a human term, a way of looking at things that just are.

None of that changes an emotional reaction, of course. It never does, and never will. And that reaction has nothing to do with any of her books: she's gone, but they will endure. (Let's hope something similar can be said for all of us.)

The Anvil of the World was Baker's first fantasy novel, originally published in 2003. She later wrote two more novels set in the same world, The House of the Stag and The Bird of the River. I read Bird when it was published, and read other short pieces set in that world over the years, but I'd been saving Anvil and House so that I would still have Baker novels to look forward to reading. After ten years, I decided it was time for this one.

Anvil is officially a novel, but actually three related novellas -- very clearly and obviously so. The first one was published separately as "The Caravan from Troon," but I don't think the others appeared separately. So this is not actually a fix-up; just a novella that grew sequels and turned into a longer book.

Baker was always a great writer of novellas, that most SFFnal length, so this is entirely a good thing.

Baker's unnamed world is fantastic, but mildly so -- there are gods, somewhere outside the world, but they don't interfere directly. (There are, however, demigods that are very much in the world, living very long lives and shaping entire societies, so I may be making a distinction without a difference.) In the region that we've seen in her novels and stories, there are three distinct races, all of which can interbreed. First are the demons, the original inhabitants, who are said to be nonhuman, and at least the upper ranks of their society are made up of persons who are effectively immortal and have at least some limited shapeshifting ability. Next are the Children of the Sun, an expansionist and inventive human race who spread like locusts over a century or three until some cataclysm kills most of them off -- said cataclysms generally caused by the Children. Last are the green-skinned Yendri, who live in the forests of this part of the world and are subject to religious manias -- they're not quite the Good Indigenous People to be seen in contrast to the expansionist, casually destructive Children, but they're in that general region and individual Yendri certainly use that line of rhetorical attack during Anvil.

Our main character is a man of the Children, now calling himself Smith. He's in his early middle years, and is trying to get away from what are told was a very successful and eventful career as a professional assassin in various city-states of the Children. (There are many of those cities scattered across this continent, and the Children fight among each other as much if not more than they fight with others.) Smith is almost preternaturally good at killing people, but he wants to stop doing it. So, as the first section begins, he's taken on a new job, under his new name, as a caravan master from Troon to Salesh-by-the-Sea. It's a somewhat dangerous journey, through a semi-wilderness populated by Yendri tribes and bandits (mostly half-breed demons), but no more so than a long sea journey of the 18th century.

His passengers on that trip, though, are a mixed and strange group, including a courier who is clearly a member of a dangerous Children gang, a Yendri herbalist with his own secrets, and the reclusive, supposedly sickly young Lord Ermenweyr and his Nurse Balnshik. More than one of those passengers attract unwanted, violent attention on the route, and Ermenweyr turns out to be the half-demon son of the Master of the Mountain, the fabled leader of a slave rebellion turned into a cross between a bandit king and a feudal lord, as well as one of the demigods I alluded to before. (Ermenweyr's mother is also a demigod, of a very different kind, and whose history with the Master is complicated and threads throughout all of Baker's fantasy stories -- he either abducted her as a bride or she came to marry him on purpose to tame him, or possibly both.)

Since I've already mentioned that Anvil has the structure of three novellas, it should not be a surprise if I say the caravan does reach Salesh, more or less as planned.

At that point, Smith and his crew settle down there to run the Hotel Grandview, with an eye to a life that will be less fraught with danger. But Smith will not be able to avoid danger, not least because he's now something like a friend (or something like a pet, or something like a distant vassal) of Ermenweyr, who will return to Salesh in search of excitement and fun of the kinds only a teenage demigod and powerful natural mage can contemplate.

So the second section sees the Grandview during Festival time, a particularly raucous and public celebration of fecundity in all of its forms. (Baker is particularly amusing in describing this: she doesn't go in for body parts but gives a kaleidoscopic overview of the all-encompassing festivities.) [1] Ermenweyr arrives for a visit at the same time, hiding out from a wizard's duel with a rival he semi-inadvertently offended. And a guest dies mysteriously, right as the Grandview is undergoing a major inspection. Smith must solve all of those problems by the end of Festival, and he does so very amusingly.

The third, longest portion of the book is less amusing, on purpose. Ermenweyr essentially kidnaps Smith and Willowspear, the Yendri apothecary attached to the hotel, supposedly to save his sister from Yendri fanatics...though Ermenweyr's story does change somewhat in the course of their journey. Smith's amazing facility with murder gets a deeper examination, and a deeper purpose. And something like the fate of the world -- or the world of at least a large portion of the cast -- is eventually at stake.

(Well, I did say it was a fantasy novel. Such things are traditional.)

Baker had the gift of always being readable; she was one of those writers whose each sentence just leads to the next one, seemingly effortlessly, making it easier to just keep reading than to ever stop. Her people are quirky and specific, embedded in their particular worlds but reminiscent of our own. And her plots are full of complications and reversals both funny and frightening; she was a master of tone and could switch it up almost on a dime.

Anvil is a lovely book. I'm happy to live in a world where there are two more novels set in the same world, but we all should live in the world where a still-healthy Baker has written another one every two or three years since, and will keep doing so for another couple of decades. Sadly, "should" never enters into it, does it?

[1] Oh, all right. Have a quote, from p.175:
Next came rolling a half-sized replica of the famous war galley Duke Rakut's Pride, its decks crowded with sailors and mermaids, waving cheerfully at the crowd despite their various amatory entanglements.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

American Nomad by Steve Erickson

In a better world, there would be more books like American Nomad -- it's the "sequel" to Leap Year, with novelist Steve Erickson following the 1996 US presidential race in a kaleidoscopic fashion once again. If he'd done that every eight years since (it would be horrible to have to experience every Presidential election that way), we'd have books for 2004 and 2012 and he'd be working on one for this year.

Of course, in an even better world, the US wouldn't be so screwed up that we'd need books like Erickson's to explicate it, but I'm wishing for things in the realm of possibility here.

American Nomad is deeply out of print and mostly forgotten, maybe even more so than Leap Year. I expect only fans of Erickson's novels even know it exists, or have ever read it. It never had a paperback edition. The cover I'm showing here is, as far as I know, the only one it ever had: deeply '90s in all of the good and bad ways.

And that's too bad, because in his visionary way, Erickson saw more clearly what America was, and all the ways it was tearing itself into pieces, almost twenty-five years ago, than most of us can on any given day.

Look, I posted the opening sentences here as a "Quote of the Week" last year -- go read that and come right back.

See what I mean? That's not 2016 -- it was 1996. It was true since 1980, but it took someone like Erickson to make it so clear.

American Nomad is not a book of reportage: one strand of it is Erickson's flameout as Rolling Stone's reporter on the race, hired to provide a unique novelistic take and then immediately subject to publisher Jann Wenner's mercurial demands, most of which were to be more like a reporter. (There's also a cutting quote, from some other reporter, to the effect that Wenner's not sure if he wants to publish great journalism or get invited to the White House after the election.) And that's probably the most factual strand of the book.

Erickson was always a visionary writer rather than a plotty one -- things happen in his book, and are always inevitable in their bizarre glory, but they happen due to buried rules of deeply unknowable universes and secret underground connections and the pure force of human desire. In his novels, they happen to characters that he invents and that live lives separate from their author. In Leap Year, they happened largely to a fictionalized, out-of-time version of Sally Hemings, who was Erickson's conscience or guide or muse.

American Nomad has only Erickson: it's a book taking place in his head, as he travels across America covering the race, or wonders what to do after being fired from covering the race, or half-assedly covering the race anyway without press credentials, or just blasting out full-force Ericksonisms about the way the world really is.

And, like Leap Year, 1996 turned out to be much less of a race than anyone expected, or any of the political reporters Erickson ran with wanted: it was another snoozer, the ending never in doubt. So what Erickson had for American Nomad was the contents of his own head: luckily, those were brilliant.

If you want to understand the buried politics of America, you could do far worse than to read Leap Year and American Nomad. You will likely disagree with lots of Erickson's thoughts -- I did, and I wouldn't be surprised if he did, too, now or even at the time. But he gets the apocalyptic fervor of American politics, the burn-the-whole-damn-thing-down energy from both ends of the spectrum, better than anyone more factual, and brings that to imaginative life on every page.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Quote of the Week: Job Opportunities

In the late seventies, Miami, like other American cities, had a steady increase in the sort of murders that occur when, say, an armed man panics while he is robbing a convenience store. It also had some political bombings and some shootings between outfits that were, depending on your point of view, either running drugs to raise money for fighting Fidel or using the fight against Fidel as cover for running drugs. At the end of the decade, Dade County's murder rate took an astonishing upturn. Around that time, the Colombians who manufactured the drugs being distributed in Miami by Cubans decided to eliminate the middleman, and, given a peculiar viciousness in the way they customarily operated, that sometimes meant eliminating the middleman's wife and whoever else happened to be around. Within a couple of years after the Colombians began their campaign to reduce overhead, Miami was hit with the Mariel Boatlift refugees. In 1977, there were two hundred and eleven murders in Dade County., By 1981, the high point of Dade murder, there were six hundred and twenty-one. That meant, according to one homicide detective I spoke to, that Miami experienced the greatest increase in murders per capita that any city had ever recorded. It also meant that Miami had the highest murder rate in the country. It also meant that a police reporter could drive to work in the morning knowing that there would almost certainly be at least one murder to write about.
 - Calvin Trillin, "Covering the Cops" (Feb 1986, profile of Edna Buchanan), in Killings, pp.284-5

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Killings by Calvin Trillin

Calvin Trillin spent a couple of decades as a reporter on the road, mostly for The New Yorker, mostly writing medium-length pieces about interesting news stories every three weeks. [1] Some of those pieces went into his U.S. Journal collection, but the strongest ones had a common thread -- well, the best stories usually have something to do with death somehow, so it's no surprise.

Someone realized that, Trillin or an editor. And in 1984, there was a themed collection of those stories about deaths, whether murders or accidents or something in between. That was Killings.

In 2017, a new edition of Killings came out. It's unclear whether any of the stories from the 1984 edition were omitted, but six stories originally published from 1985 through 2009 were added at the end. (I read the original edition of Killings sometime in my first run through Trillin back in the '90s, but I lost that copy in the flood, and now can't say if the old book really was only about 160 pages long.)

Trillin is a great reporter: he tells the stories he finds clearly and precisely, and leaves in the ambiguities as he finds them. More than that, he signposts the ambiguities, walking around all sides of them to see what exactly is ambiguous, what's clearly known but ignored, and what can't be spoken about. Each one of these twenty-two pieces benefits from his eye and words: we know more and understand better each of these situations than we would have otherwise.

Twenty-one of those stories are about a sudden, violent death. Usually one that's someone else's fault -- though a lot of these have arguments in at least two directions, including, as is always the case, the dead person him- or herself. Sometimes, a particular person was found legally responsible, and Trillin goes through that process as well, with the same level of skill and ability that he brought to the stories of the deaths. He also is deeply interested in what a fancier writer would call the milieu of the deceased: where and how they lived, what kind of people they were part of, what communities are in this town or city or country and how they interact. I'm putting that in a quiet way, since Trillin strives to be factual and specific, but any death has some level of passion surrounding it -- and many of these deaths had far more passion than that. There are conflicts between "straights" and "freaks" at the beginning of this book, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and other more modern conflicts later on: refugees without as much of a lifeline as they needed, farmers losing everything, men falling into bizarre theories to explain why their lives didn't go as planned. And of course, families -- it comes down to families a lot of the time.

The last story -- out of chronological order, on purpose -- is a profile of Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan in 1986, before she turned her hand to fiction and became more famous, back when she was just a well-respected reporter on the hottest beat in a hot city. Buchanan was a fancier writer than Trillin, in a modified tabloid style, but one master will acknowledge another.

Trillin has the strengths of the best reporters: he can tell you the facts so that you understand more than the facts. He can explain, as much as anyone can, why people do what they do, and describe what they did do honestly but not salaciously. And Killings is one of his best books of reportage: maybe because it has the best material, maybe because it was written during the time he was most intensely a reporter. The stories here, many of them, still resonate in 2020 -- these are stories about American deaths, in ways that Americans still die today.

[1] Or I can let him explain it, better than I could, from his new introduction to this edition:
For fifteen years, starting in the fall of 1967, I traveled around the United States to do a series of reporting pieces for The New Yorker called "U.S. Journal" -- a three-thousand-word article every three weeks for somewhere in the country. (Magazine writers asked, "How do you keep up that pace?" Newspaper reporters asked, "What else do you do?")

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde is one of the world's premier quirky writers, and I say that with the highest appreciation. He started off with the deeply metafictional Thursday Next series -- about a heroine who can dive in and out of books to fix them, and does -- and has gone on to write other series about dragonslayers in a pseudo-modern Balkanized UK and hard-boiled detectives in fairy tales (both of which are also pretty damn good).

Early Riser was his new novel for 2018, and, for about the next three weeks in this country, is still his newest book. (The Constant Rabbit is on the way, and already in print in the UK.) As of right this moment, it's a standalone, but it could turn into a series.

Right now, it looks most like Forde's previous standalone SF [1] novel, 2010's magnificent Shades of Grey. It's set in a unique quirky but self-consistent world -- Grey was a medium-future insular Britain ruled by levels of color sight and a generationally-slow stepwise dismantling of all technology and civilization; Riser is set in an alternate world with massively higher, and possibly increasing, glaciation and consequently hairier humans who mostly hibernate the winter away; its Britain is not as deeply insular but all of Fforde's books are about Wales first and everywhere else barely at all -- and features a young man of minor means and background who is rapidly thrown into the deep end of biggest secrets of his world.

So this is about Charlie Worthing, who grew up in what the reader eventually figures out is a government creche, populated mostly by the children created by government requirement to keep the population from plummeting. The world is deadly, mostly because of Winter: only a small handful of people are awake then, and many of them don't make it to Spring. Of course, a lot of sleepers don't make it to Spring either, which is seen as the way of the world. The entire society is organized on a minimum-viable-skills basis, so whoever is left alive at any given time can keep things going...and it's pretty clear that's because "whoever is left alive" has been random and capricious over and over again for a somewhat different version of the history we know. And where are we in that history? From what I gleaned, it's the early 1990s -- but I could be wrong.

Charlie has few options in life: he was expected to stay as Assistant House Manager of St. Granata's Pooled Parentage Station for as long as he survived. More than that: he should be happy for that job. His birth deformity made his life shaky to begin with and St. Granata's gives him Morphenox, the drug that keeps sleepers from dreaming during hibernation and has greatly reduced the number of non-wakers over the past generation.

But instead Charlie has found another way out, trying to make his own life for himself. That falls apart, due to enemy action, in the first pages of Early Riser, and Charlie instead finds himself as a very junior Winter Consul, part of the elite group that keeps the peace while most of the world is asleep. And, like many Fforde protagonists, he's very rapidly thrown in much deeper than he expects, sent far away to a place he can't escape from, and enmeshed in various plots that he only dimly realizes at first even exist.

Winter is even more deadly than the weather: there are bands of Villains emboldened to attack with most of the law-abiding population asleep, and zombie-like Nightwalkers irreparably damaged by Morphenox, and maybe -- if you believe some rumors -- semi-supernatural Wintervolk as well. Plus some very large organizations that don't get along with each other very well and are trying to squeeze Charlie, each from their side, for ends that he hasn't figured out yet.

So the question of Early Riser is: will Charlie make it to Spring? And what will he need to do, or to become, to survive that Winter?

I finished Early Riser a month ago, after taking nearly a month to read it, so I'm not going to go into great detail with names and places and plot explications. (This has been a hell of a year for my reading life, but I hope I'm digging out now.) And I don't seem to have had the same initial reaction to Riser as I did to Grey, which I thought was a near-masterpiece when I read it and which still bulks large in the memory. But that may be me: Riser is smart and sharp and full of well-drawn characters who fit into this deeply weird world very precisely.

Fforde writes books in corners of Fantastika that he excavated and furnished entirely himself, and they are all damn good books. I can think of no other writer like him: his humor is sometimes vaguely reminiscent of Pratchett, but that humor is pretty deeply buried in his books these days; that was more typical of the early Thursday Next novels or the two Nursery Crime books. Early Riser is a book about looming death and danger, and a society structured around those threats, as seen by someone who's smart enough to figure things out but doesn't know as much as he thinks he does. Fforde writes books that hit that rare trifecta of being utterly sui generis, deeply readable, and deeply resonant in a literary way. All his books are worth reading: this one, as a standalone, is a great first choice.

[1] I'm not going to define what the "S" stands for. But Fforde definitely works the Fantastika side of the street in all of his work to date.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Because I Said So! by Ken Jennings

Some books I post about here almost entirely as a signpost. It's not that I actually have much to say about that book; it's just that I read it and want to mark that event -- and this is where I keep those records.

So with Ken Kenning's book Because I Said So!, a did-you-know compendium that sat in the smallest room of my house for several months earlier this year and did good work there. I don't really have much to say about it, but I'll try to explain briefly what it is, and perhaps it may eventually do the same work for some reader who stumbles across this post.

Jennings is famous for winning a lot of money on Jeopardy!, a TV gameshow, in the early Aughts. He bootstrapped that minor fame into writing a series of mostly trivia-related books, of which this was the fourth. Because was published in 2012, but I didn't come across it until 2019 -- so I read it a lot faster than most things, which is either an indictment of contemporary fiction or a comment on my relative dearth of bathroom books, you pick.

Anyway, Because is about Stuff Your Parents Told You. Well, possibly not "you" -- it's mostly the standard WASP mid-Twentieth Century upbringing that Jennings is referencing here, since (as he says) that's the life he lived and (I suspect) it's what looked most general and salable to his publishers anyway. So if you come from a different background -- if your parents are some color other than very pale or came to the US fairly recently from somewhere more interesting, or if you're not even American to begin with -- these may seem strange and weird to you. (Which could make the book more interesting: maybe What Those Weirdo WASPs Think would be a lot of fun to you.)

But if you've been embedded in American media for any solid stretch of the past fifty years or so, this will all be familiar: no swimming for an hour after eating, feed a cold and starve a fever, drink eight glasses of water a day, don't run with scissors, if you cross your eyes they'll stay like that, and, of course, you'll shoot your eye out. Jennings rates all of those and more, around 150 sayings and beliefs in total, on a sliding True to False scale, with a lot of Mostly True With a Big But or Almost Entirely Fales But Based on A Misunderstood Truth in there as well.

I am not qualified to judge all of those ratings, and Jennings does not provide detailed references in this consumer-friendly book. (A: not that I would check them anyway. B: though he does explain how he found out the truth, and seems to have done a lot of research.) But my sense is that it's generally correct and accurate for 2012, and, barring any major developments in booger science or the release of a longitudinal study of chip double-dipping, it's still pretty accurate.

So if you are a 20th century WASP, grew up among them, or want to know more about their odd belief systems, this may be a useful book for you.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Quote of the Week: Relative Probabilities

(Just a heads-up, when a murderbot stands there looking to the left of your head to avoid eye contact, it's probably not thinking about killing you. It's probably frantically trying to come up with a reply to whatever you just said to it.)
 - Martha Wells, Network Effect, pp.27-28

Thursday, September 10, 2020

How I Tried to Be a Good Person by Ulli Lust

Turning life into art can take a long time. Ulli Lust's first comics memoir, Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, covered events from 1984 but was written and drawn about twenty-five years later.

How I Tried to Be a Good Person is the "sequel" to that earlier book, in the sense that it's another big book in which Lust looks back at a time in her younger life. This time, the Ulli in the book is a few years older -- say five or so, placing these events around 1989 -- and the original German edition of Good Person was published in 2017, so she's still running about twenty-five years in the past.

But Good Person is different from Today: the first book covered one trip in detail, each day remembered in the bright detail only available when you remember the high points of your teenage life. Good Person is about a stage of life, and longer-term relationships as they shift and flow and bounce off each other.

Good Person is the story of young Ulli's relationships with two men and one boy -- her long-term boyfriend Georg, her eventual husband Kimata, and her son Philipp. But saying that implies a certain shape of story, and Ulli's life was nothing like that story.

Ulli and Georg lived in Vienna, maintaining separate apartments. Philipp, about four years old, lived with Ulli's parents, far out in the countryside, and she only saw him intermittently. That was mostly by choice -- she was trying to establish herself as an artist in the big city -- but her feelings were clearly complicated.

Georg, on the other hand, was much older than Ulli -- almost twice her age, on the verge of his forties. He was a great intellectual match for her: artistic, loving, thoughtful, connected to the theater world. But their sex life was ebbing, and Georg admitted that's what always happens with his long-term relationships. That was unacceptable for Ulli: sex was important to her, and she wanted more of it (and more of that closeness and physicality) than Georg could give her.

They were both modern and bohemian, though, so multiple relationships were on the table. And so when Ulli met Kimata, a man around her age and an immigrant from Nigeria, she fell into a relationship with him. He moved in with her, and she eventually married him to give him legal residency. But Kimata was never quite happy sharing her with Georg, or with anyone, and that drives most of the events of Good Person from the point he leaps onto the page.

The story of Good Person is about Ulli's dance among those three -- mostly with Kimata, as the most demanding and loud, the closest and (eventually) most dangerous. She wanted a life balancing all of the things she wanted most, and more-or-less got it, at least for a while.

And, as she tells the story at a remove of almost three decades, young Ulli was mostly honest and mostly fair, saying what she really meant and giving up secrets as the relationships moved forward. She wasn't perfect -- the older Lust writing and drawing this story makes that clear -- but she knew what she wanted and she advocated for herself almost all the time.

Lust's art is loose and flowing, driving nearly four hundred pages of complicated story and a lot of characters. But the core of Good Person is the words: what she and Georg and Kimata say to each other, in various permutations, over the course of the year or two this all took to play out.

Good Person isn't as immediate as Today was: Today was the story of a moment, and Good Person is the story of a time of life. But it's perhaps deeper and more thoughtful, asking whether it's possible to have all the things we want, and what it might cost to have them -- or what we have to do when the things we do want are in conflict with the things we think we should want.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Network Effect by Martha Wells

You might have heard of this book; the Murderbot series has made a bit of a splash the last couple of years. But, if not, here's the scoop: this is the first novel-length entry and the fifth book about Murderbot, a construct SecUnit (Security Unit, built from biological and mechanical parts, human-level sentient but supposed to be utterly controlled by a governor module) in a medium-future galactic SF setting. Murderbot, soon before the series began, hacked its governor module, as part of the event in which it started calling itself Murderbot (for good reasons).

The prior books, all novellas, were All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy. (Links go to my posts, for those who want more details.) Over the course of those stories, Murderbot (who, by the way, is our first-person narrator and an absolute joy as such) has gotten away from its initial state (chattel of an unnamed company, tasked to protect and probably die for some client) and found something like freedom and what could be friends or family, if you were an entity entirely unlike Murderbot.

Network Effect begins with Murderbot foiling a low-level and mostly bungled attack attempt on its new "family," on a research mission on a random planet somewhere. But, on the way back to their home on Preservation Station, a much better organized, stronger, and more dangerous attack grabs their entire ship and hijacks it into a wormhole, heading off to parts unknown.

It turns out that second attack was related to another "friend" of Murderbot, a brain running a large transport starship that Murderbot calls ART (and whose actual ship name we do learn in this book). So Effect is, as usual for Murderbot books, two things at once: first an action-packed adventure, in which evil forces threaten and are eventually defeated. And, equally as much, an emotional journey for Murderbot, who is learning how to be part of relationships and to function in its world outside of the narrow task it was created for.

Wells does both brilliantly, and intertwines the two portions of the book on every page: the adventure story is the emotional story, and vice versa. I don't want to get into details of the adventure plot, but it's there and suitably thrilling. (Or the emotional plot, frankly.) She's written novels of this length before (and substantially longer, come to think of it), so it's not that she's "stretching" Murderbot plots out longer -- just taking advantage of a larger canvas to do even more of what made the earlier books so good.

I don't read a hell of a lot of SF (or anything) these days, so it may seem like faint praise if I say Network Effect, and the Murderbot stories in general, are among the very best SF coming out these days. But it's what I can say, and I do believe it.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Reincarnation Stories by Kim Deitch

Kim Deitch's graphic novels are usually about old, forgotten entertainment -- vaudeville, early movies, stage magic -- that don't actually exist in this world. And they generally feature prominently a character named Kim Deitch who tells us the story and gets involved in mysteries about those old pieces of entertainment, as well as some events that may be mildly supernatural.

In the books, it's all straight-faced. I'm pretty sure Deitch knows this all is fiction, and plans it all as fiction, though he's not usually one for winking at the reader to give that away...but I think I caught a few winks in his most recent book, Reincarnation Stories.

He might be winking here because this book is even more centrally about "Kim Deitch" and his wife Pam than earlier books have been -- the flashbacks here are mostly to Kim as a child, not to movie sets and vaudeville theatres and mysterious lands. (Though there's some of each of those as well.)

So the first thing to know about Deitch is: this is fiction. You know it's fiction, he knows it's fiction. But what if it wasn't? That's the joy of a Deitch book -- that and his lovingly detailed drawings, which often stretch across entire spreads under long, descriptive captions. (Have I mentioned Deitch is a master of comics? He's been doing this for fifty years or so now, and he's pretty damn good at it.)

This time out, Deitch learns he is, or might be, the reincarnation of failed screenwriter Sid Pincus -- first identified as such at the age of four, by D.W. Griffith in the last days of his life. Stories is told in about a dozen-and-a-half chapters, each of which I believe originally appeared somewhere semi-separately. And each section does somewhat stand alone; Stories is the comics equivalent of a Van Vogt fix-up, all of the pieces written to be both things in themselves and part of the larger whole. That does make the whole thing episodic and slightly less strong than Deitch's best books like Alias the Cat or The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

But it's still got that unique Deitch energy, that vibration of truth and fiction on every page. And it's centered around "Kim Deitch" learning some quirky and bizarre (and, need I say it again, entirely made-up) truths about the world, life, human existence, and the meaning of everything.

So if you happened to miss it -- it was published at least a year ago -- you have a treat ahead of you.

But if you've never read Deitch before, pick up one of the books more centrally about Waldo, his trickster alter-ego/externalized id to start out with. There'll be plenty more Deitch to dig into, so start with the killers.