Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Ukridge by P.G. Wodehouse

We all know That Guy: the one who always has a plan to get ahead, a scheme to get rich, a quick shortcut onto Easy Street, and a boundless optimism that he can do it all with just the tiniest bit of help. P.G. Wodehouse knew That Guy, too.

For the space of these ten stories, That Guy is Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, the laziest ball of energy in England, an endless font of complication and silly ideas in a yellow Macintosh coat. His schemes are all entirely of his time, as they must be, but his type is more modern than a lot of Wodehouse's characters. (Ukridge also may be more interesting to some Americans than effete aristos like Bertie Wooster; he's not American himself but his boundless enthusiasm and desire to get very rich easily and quickly resonates very strongly on my side of the Atlantic.)

Be happy you don't know Ukridge, or that you don't have a Ukridge in your own life. He's a wearying fellow, always imposing on a friendship to ask for a favor or a small loan or to borrow one's nice suit to go out to a party. In fiction, he's a wonderful character, but in life he would be horrible.

The contemporary US equivalent of Ukridge is Kramer from Seinfeld, if that helps you place him. Ukridge is British and well-educated, so not as vulgar or loud -- but easily as annoying and full of crazy ideas. Ukridge also features in a number of other Wodehouse stories across several collections, and the early novel Love Among the Chickens.

All of the Ukridge stories are narrated by his long-suffering friend Jimmy Corcoran, a hard-working writer who bears some resemblance to Wodehouse himself during the years he first created Ukridge (the first decade of the twentieth century). Each story has a certain shape, as it must: Ukridge arrives, with a new scheme, and enlists Jimmy's aid in it against his best judgement. And things go badly, humorously wrong, as they must.

Wodehouse was the greatest writer I know at taking a particular plot armature and ringing changes on it: he had no more than ten major plots but wrote a hundred books over the course of a long and very successful career. He's the epitome of a specialist writer: he got amazingly good at doing something very specific, and amazingly funny at getting new laughs from the same standard pieces of furniture. That might all sound like a small thing, but it's not: so few writers have ever written a really wonderful book once, and Wodehouse was able to write really wonderful books, in the same mode, for over six decades straight. Ukridge is a fine example of that, and one of the lesser-known creations of the great comic mind of the twentieth century.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/22

Hello and Happy Monday, as always.

I got a couple of books in the mail this week, so I'm going to write about them. But I also bought a couple of books, for let's-use-up-these-gift-cards-that-we've-already-had-for-two-years reasons, so I'll list those as well. I trust that I've been communicating professionally for long enough that I can make it clear which books are which.

(In case you're confused, the first two are the ones that came in the mail.)

Steven Erikson is back in space-opera mode with Willful Child: Wrath of Betty, one of the least likely space-opera titles I've ever seen. It's a sequel to last year's Willful Child, and continues the adventures of a crew that Treks through the Stars, if you know what I mean. Do not expect subtlety. This is a Tor hardcover, available the first of November.

Also appearing in my mail: Liselotte & Witch's Forest, Vol. 2, by Natsuki Takaya. (Yes, not "in" forest, and also not "the" forest. I suspect this series will be misnamed more often than not.) I think this is one of these stories about a girl who is way too perky and happy all the time, despite being exiled to the ass-end of nowhere and saddled with other serious problems. This one is from Yen Press, and is available right now.

Obtained with my own money: Hellboy in Hell, Vol. 2: The Dead Card. I understand this is the very last Hellboy story, until Mike Mignola thinks of something else for him to do. It's by Mignola with colors by Dave Stewart.

And last, and also from my shopping trip, is Stephan Pastis's Pearls Gets Sacrificed, the latest treasury-sized collection of his comic strip. I seem to have gotten out of the habit of buying collections of current newspaper strips -- maybe because that genre is dying and mostly infested with zombies -- but Pastis annotates his collections, which makes them that much better and worthy of my money.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Complete Peanuts, 1950 to 1952 by Charles M. Schulz

I have thrown a lot of words around here about Charles M. Schulz's cartoon magnum opus -- see my posts on the volumes covering 1957-1958, 1959-1960, 1961-1962, 1963-19641965-1966, 1967-1968, 1969-1970, 1971-1972, 1973-1974, 1975-1976, 1977-1978, 1979-1980, 1981-1982, 1983-1984, 1985-1986, 1987-1988, 1989-1990, 1991-1992, and 1993-1994 -- but the first few volumes came out before I had started this blog. (Which makes this a very long publishing program, since the last volume is rolling off the presses this month.) I've never actually had the opportunity to bloviate here about the very beginning of Peanuts.

Of course, lots of other people have bloviated before me -- check out the Google for Peanuts around the time the first volume published in 2004, and you'll see the cartoon to the right (the very first Peanuts comic strip, from October 2, 1950) reprinted a hell of a lot, along with plenty of chin-scratching about how mean these kids were in the early days, how Schulz's style was clearly different then, and how the core cast didn't really start to assemble for another year or so. But this is my chance to dig my reviewing mitts into The Complete Peanuts, 1950 to 1952, so forgive me if I don't let go of it easily.

The Complete Peanuts, 1950 to 1952 shows us a very different strip than the Peanuts we know -- it's different both from the often sad sequence of long continuities and strong characterization of the '60s and early '70s, and even more different from the mostly sunny, mostly gag-a-day version of the strip featuring Snoopy that flourished from the late '70s through the end in 2000. Schulz's characters started out as real children, doing almost entirely childish things, with a level of cruelty and heartlessness that Peter Pan would approve of. The larger, and usually sub-textual, philosophical questions won't start showing up for another couple of years. So this book has stories of kids alone, in a mostly stark landscape, without parents or teachers or other adults. (Charlie Brown didn't get a barber father to talk about for several years, and the talking school building was several decades in the future.)

The cast is also notably different -- Charlie Brown was there from Day One, but he was a cocky, self-confident kid. The doubts and misery came later, as he turned into Schulz's viewpoint character, and not just a kid to make gags around. The rest of the opening-day cast is mostly forgotten now, because Schulz had them in as placeholders, and replaced them over time as he had better, more specific ideas. So Patty and Violet were "girls," and not much more. But Lucy was first a cute little kid, and then a fussbudget, and then (long after this volume) something like the fictional version of Schulz's first wife. Sally, too, started out as a cute kid, a more refined version of the initial version of Lucy, and clicked as Charlie Brown's kid sister. Similarly, the undifferentiated Shermy is joined, and nearly lapped, in this volume by the more specific and interesting Linus and Shroeder.

Coming to the very early Peanuts after seeing only late Peanuts for a long time can be a breath of fresh air: I loved this volume when I read it the first time. There's so much energy and emotion here; this is before Schulz sublimated those unruly kid feelings into his standard plots, and if that makes it all pretty scattershot, it's still an energizing kind of scattershot. Schulz did get better than this, definitely -- but he was interesting and exciting and original right from the beginning.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Leaves of Brown Came Tumbling Down


Well, if you didn't remember, my post listing the books I read in September has finally gone live where it was supposed to.

And, because this is what "September" always reminds me of, have a little Tex Avery (in case the embed doesn't work right, the relevant bit is at 5:38:

Lulu Anew by Eteinne Davodeau

There are not all that many books about middle-aged women. Books that treat them realistically, and give their lives meaning and agency are even rarer. Lulu Anew is a little slow, and a little self-indulgent, and has a huge bait-and-switch near the end, but just putting a woman like Lulu at the center of the story generates more than enough credit to overcome all of that. (It does for me, at least. Your mileage may vary, depending on how much you're interested in comics stories about realistic people leading realistic lives in the real world.)

Lulu Anew is a graphic novel by Etienne Davodeau, who I know from his earlier book The Initiates, in which he and a winemaker "traded jobs" for a while. (Davodeau actually helped to made wine, but the winemaker only read comics; he didn't make them.) This was originally published as two separate albums in France -- there's a clear break right in the middle of this book -- but it's been put together for an American audience that likes heftier volumes that come all the way to the end of a story. It's a heavily narrated book, told by Lulu's friends as they piece together her story one long evening after the main events of the book -- and that framing sequence obviously adds tension and drama to what otherwise is a fairly low-key story about one woman's walkabout.

Lulu, again, is middle-aged, not lovely, and not particularly appreciated. Her husband is a lout, her twin elementary-school sons are more than a handful each, and her teen daughter not terribly helpful. A job interview in the next city over has just gone badly -- so she decides, on the spur of the moment, to just not go home that night to the unappreciative husband grumping at her on the phone. She stays over at a hotel in that city, where she meets a traveling saleswoman -- the two have a long, wine-filled dinner, and Lulu complains about her life in a way she hasn't for years, or possibly ever.

So she doesn't go home again the next morning -- she's not ready to drop back into her old life, full of other people's needs and demands. Instead, she finds herself in a city on the coast, watching the ocean and just being there. She meets a man around her age, Charles, and the two immediately fall into an affair, aided by Charles's two protective brothers.

Meanwhile, her hotheaded husband is imposing on the family friends back at home -- he's the typical fictional husband, incapable of doing anything for himself or the family and prone to destroy anything in his way out of mere pique. A friend is sent to the coast city to find and bring back Lulu -- he does one but not the second. Then the daughter comes, with similar results.

Lulu does eventually get back home. And the ominous hints from the frame story finally come into focus, in a way that I'm afraid is too manipulative and obvious. But that's a minor flaw. Lulu is a real, complex, fascinating woman -- an average-looking person in a provincial city with an average family, living a life that isn't quite giving her what she needs. Davodeau tells her story at a remove, to give her room to be free and a bit unknowable, the way real people always are. His art tells the story cleanly, and the dialogue has just a hint of dialect in it -- I'm not sure if that's intentional, or an artifact of the translation process making the phrasing just that bit clumsy. Lulu Anew is a fine story about a complex person that doesn't try to simply her, and succeeds because of that.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Story of My Tits by Jennifer Hayden

Um, we all know what it means when a middle-aged creator does a book-length story about a body part, right? OK, maybe it could be some thing thrillingly obscure, like body integrity identity disorder, but 99 times out of a hundred, it means The Big C.

Jennifer Hayden had The Big C. She lived to tell the tale. And that tale is The Story of My Tits.

But Hayden doesn't just want to talk about the Big C, which is gratifying -- we all know that story, and anyone's individual version of it isn't going to be that different in the general outlines. (Is the story told by the person? Then she survived. Is it told by a close family member? Prepare for an even sadder version.) Instead, The Story of My Tits is a general autobiography in comics form, with chapter titles that all reference her tits.

I like this book, because it gives me an opportunity to use the word "tits" repeatedly.

Well, I like it for other reasons, too -- Hayden is engaging and honest and has an infectious enthusiasm for life as well as a quirky art style that looks a little bit like R.O. Blechman -- but the tits thing is a nice bonus.

Hayden is from New Jersey, like I am -- another reason to like her! -- though I think she's a bit older than I am. (A gentleman doesn't dig too much into the age of a lady.) And she's had a lot of life, like all of us. But she's got an interesting through-line here to organize it: the tits thing really means that Story is about self and connection -- how she feels about herself and what people she's close to. After an initial chapter about her childhood, where she was a late and small developer, Story gets deeply into her college love life, and then (once she connected with the man who became her husband) the connections were with his parents and their partners.

From there, it's a lot of incidents and experiences -- she's lived a full life, and is good at looking back at it to pull out moments and sequences -- of her personal and professional life over the next couple of decades. Her parents, and her husband's parents, get older, and that's not always pleasant. The Big C shows up more than once for other people before (Spoiler Alert!) it hits Hayden herself.

Hayden tells all of this in a chatty comics style somewhat influenced by Lynda Barry -- wordy but conversational, focused on people and relationships, the story of a person that's also the story of the communities she's part of. It's a long book -- about 350 pages -- and denser than it looks. But, then, Hayden is telling the story of her whole life, and she's done plenty of things. And, just as  importantly, she's known a lot of people and thought about a lot of things -- The Story of My Tits is the story of all of those things, of the people Hayden has known and the communities she's been part of and the lives she's lived.

And of her tits, too, of course. Can't forget those.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam by Simon Hanselmann

Well, um, that was a thing, wasn't it?

I believe Megg and Mogg in Amsterdam is the second book by Simon Hanselmann about his series characters Megg, Mogg, Owl and Werewolf Jones, after Megahex. Megg is a witch -- green skin, long nose, black pointy hat, the whole package. [1] Mogg is her cat/boyfriend. They're both layabouts, stoners, and general losers with no apparent source of support. Owl is their third roommate, and the requisite functional adult of the group: he's a wet blanket, a whiner, and more than slightly annoying, but he actually holds down a job and presumably provides all of the income for this crappy little household. So he takes substantially fewer drugs than Megg or Mogg...which isn't to say he doesn't take any.

Oh, and Werewolf Jones is their dealer, who uses his own product far too much if his temper and mood swings are any indication. Jones also is the sometimes caretaker for his two feral tween sons, who are barely sapient at best. He sometimes seems to be supposed to be wild and wacky and a crazy guy, but more often he just seems psychotic and cruising for some very heavy object to be lovingly placed upside his head. There are some minor characters, too, but they tend not to talk much -- and the main four talk incessantly.

All of these are unpleasant people who do dull things in annoying ways and are both deeply horrible and deeply boring. Hanselmann's art, also, is on the dull side: he mostly uses a simple, almost animation-derived line, and his layouts are relentless grids, varying only in the number of identical boxes on each particular page. He generally puts a lot of small panels full of tedium on every page, so it takes a while to read all of the dull words these dull unpleasant people fling at each other.

You may guess that I did not exactly enjoy this book. You would be correct.

I don't mind comics about stoners -- I really loved Joe Daly's Dungeon Quest books, and wish there was another one of them right now. But I do need those stoners to interact with the outside world at least somewhat, and not sit and stew in their own drug-fueled misery. Even for stoners, Megg and Mogg are whiny dull losers, and that's saying something. If they did anything interesting, they'd be fine. If their non-adventures had snappy dialogue, they'd be OK. If the pages were attractively designed and pleasing to look at, they'd be all right.

But it's not all right. It's not even close to all right.

[1] She doesn't seem to do anything witchy, but then she doesn't do much of anything of any kind. That's kind of the point of these stories.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Crooked by Austin Grossman

The "everything you know is wrong" story is a long-time favorite, with an eternal appeal. Listen, the storyteller whispers as you lean closer, and you'll hear how it really is, the story behind the story, and the secrets that should never have come out. Those stories have to go big, of course -- no one cares about little secrets about little people, like that substance that we call "2% milk" is really, horribly 3% milkfat due to a cabal of fat-loving dairy farmers.

(If the 3% milk was a carefully calibrated amount designed to slow the brains of men as part of a fiendish operation led by the only-appearing-to-be-cows advance force of an alien invasion fleet, then you might have the beginnings of something. Outlandish. Unbelievable. Bizarre. Crazy -- that's what we look for in these kind of stories.)

So what would you say if I told you that Richard M. Nixon was actually the greatest President who ever lived, a man who sacrificed everything to make America permanently safe, a hero who threw away vast power selflessly? Well, I hope that, like your imaginary self in the first paragraph, you'll lean closer and settle in comfortably to learn more.

That's the story Austin Grossman has to tell here. He calls it Crooked. And it tells you that all you know about Nixon -- as well as about the roots of American political power and the real roles of its rulers -- is deeply, deeply wrong. You see, Presidents are magicians. Not in the metaphoric fooling-people sense, or even in the stage-magic sense. Lovecraftian gods are real, the world is full of horrors, and the only thing that keeps human societies safe are mystic bonds forged by blood between rulers and their lands. But magician-kings can be benevolent or malefic, just like any other kind of kings -- and the same goes for presidents. And sometimes power can be claimed in such a way that it can never be taken away again.

I probably shouldn't write too much here about the twists and turns of the plot: in fact, I may have already said too much. (But the whole Nixon's-the-one twist is the whole point of the book; it's hard to discuss it without at least gesturing in the direction of Nixon the ritual practitioner.) Grossman brings us this story in Nixon's own words, and explains many puzzling moments in his life, in the best secret-history style.

And, even more so, Grossman is a fantastic writer of sentences and paragraphs and scenes, with prose that's absolutely perfect dozens of times in Crooked. Look, here's one: "Like an aeons-buried elder god, or a vast extradimensional intelligence, the heart lives by unreadable codes and incomprehensible motives, knowing nothing of dignity or humanity, and more often than not brings only destruction and madness on those who are exposed to its baleful cravings." (p.13)

Or this even better bit, two pages later:
This is a tale of espionage and betrayal and the dark secrets of a decades-long cold war. It is a story of otherworldly horror, of strange nameless forces that lie beneath the reality we know. In other words, it is the story of a marriage.

If I wanted to ding Grossman on anything, it would be on his worldbuilding: there's a faint sense that he's spinning this all out as he goes, and that he hasn't done the obsessive research and background writing of someone like Tim Powers. The world in Crooked isn't thin, but at times it's very convenient, and Grossman is more interested in the flow of Nixon's voice than in nailing down (even in the background or his own head) exactly how ritual magic works and what practitioners need to do to accomplish their ends.

Still, it's a surprisingly emotionally resonant mildly Lovecraftian novel with Richard Nixon as its hero, which is three kinds of unlikely success rolled up into one. And it's a fine third novel from the quirky writer who already brought us Soon I Will Be Invincible and You -- all odd, spiky novels driven by voice, deeply focused on a sideways take on a geeky obsession, and with a slight tendency to skate over lurking plot complications and logical holes.