Monday, July 04, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of July 2, 2022

This is the middle part of the trilogy that started last week; the old skiffy hand in me would never pass up an opportunity to commit trilogy. 

This week, I have four more books from the remainder mills of HamiltonBook - I'm lumping these as Literary. Last week, I had the first four books from that big box; next week will see the last four.

Henry, Himself was Stewart O'Nan's new novel in 2019; it might still be his most recent book. It's loosely related to his previous novels Wish You Were Here and Emily, Alone. (I have copies of both of them but haven't read either; I've been a fan of all of the O'Nan books I've read without ever reading him fast enough to actually catch up.) This is a character-focused novel, and I think set in between the times of the previous two books - in 1998, when the title character (husband of the Emily who is Alone in her book) is seventy-five and apparently not long for this world. (How long are any of us for this world at seventy-five? Well, my wife has spent the last couple of years telling me about Gordon, a man of I think a hundred-and-three who she saw at the free-tax-prep-for-seniors office where she works in the spring, so that's where I've set my goals.)

Realistically, I'll want to read two fairly substantial novels before starting this one. I won't get to it any time soon, unless my reading life changes radically again. But who knows?

I probably had a copy of Francois Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel before. I would not be surprised if it was this exact Everyman's Library edition - I like these books (though I tend to remove their dust jackets, so they can sit, mostly in nice red cloth, on my shelves and judge me for not reading them) and this edition is from 1994, so there's been plenty of time for copies to percolate around. This is a classic, obviously: a four-hundred-year-old translation of a five-hundred-year-old book, or maybe series of books. I've never read it; I hope to read it someday. Now I have a slightly higher chance of doing so.

Another book from Everyman's, and I could say again most of what I just said: The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This one is only a one-hundred-year-old translation of a three-hundred-year-old book, but it's also French, which I didn't mention last paragraph.

I don't quite know the Everyman's color scheme. As I said, most of the books I've had a red (maroon, maybe): those are mostly British novels. Confessions is dark green, perhaps for non-fiction? Gargantua is a light blue, which I guess is for Continental literature. Looking at my shelves, what I thought of as "red" seems to actually be two things: a dark maroon for 19th century British (and earlier?) and a lighter red for English-language stuff from the 20th century (including some Americans).

Last for this batch: the most recent travel book from Paul Theroux, 2019's On the Plain of Snakes. This one is a trip through Mexico, clearly inspired by all of the fear-mongering about "the border" in the years just prior and apparently spending a lot of its time following that border. My assumption is that Theroux has no truck at all for any of that fear-mongering, but he's getting up in years now, and who knows how a curmudgeon will land in his old age?

I've never read a Theroux novel, but I'm basically caught up on his travel books: there are a few scattered ones from earlier in his career I haven't read, and the recent short-pieces collection Figures in a Landscape is on my shelves mocking me, but I have gotten through the big books from the prior two decades or so, up to Deep South.

These are probably not books I'll get to any time soon. But we all want stretch goals on our shelves, don't we?

Books Read: June 2022

When I have a long weekend immediately after the end of a month, I actually remember to do these posts on time. Go me!

Here's what I read last month:

Dave McKean, Raptor: A Sokol Graphic Novel (digital, 6/4)

Steve Martin, Cruel Shoes (6/4)

Manuele Fior, Celestia (6/5)

Charles Stross, Escape from Yokai Land (6/5)

Darrly Cunningham, Billionaires (6/11)

Rutu Modan, Tunnels (6/12)

K.J. Parker, Inside Man (6/12)

Tillie Walden, Alone in Space (6/17)

Joe Ciardiello, A Fistful of Drawings (digital, 6/18)

Brian Gordon, Fowl Language: Winging It (digital, 6/19)

Gregory Mardon, Body and Soul (digital, 6/20)

James Alan Gardner, They Promised Me the Gun Wasn't Loaded (6/20)

Brenna Thummler, Sheets (digital, 6/25)

Zander Cannon, Kaijumax, Season 4: Scaly Is the New Black (digital, 6/26)

Walter Mosley, Trouble Is What I Do (6/26)


Next month I'll read more books. And maybe even remember to list them here.

Friday, July 01, 2022

Quote of the Week: A Lesson Many People Should Learn

"Belay that remarking, buddy. I've got a feeling we may meet more people who are put together in ways you haven't seen before, so I'll give you a thirty-second course in etiquette. When you encounter someone physically radical, do not speak about that person as if they were not present, whisper to who you're with, or make faces or gestures. You can speak to the person, because it's a person, and if you don't mind the risk of seeming a little boorish you can go straight to making reference to how they look and how they got that way, they're used to it. Mostly it's good manners not to bring it up until they do."

 - Molly the Dwerg, in Daniel Pinkwater's Crazy in Poughkeepsie, pp.85-86

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Book Love by Debbie Tung

I'm usually not a fan of the log-line format, but sometimes I read a book that is really obviously "this one book I read recently" mixed with "this other book I read recently." I'd still probably avoid saying so, unless it was clear that was the author's intention, and not just random stuff I'm reading into it.

Today is one of those days. I just read a short, pleasant, inoffensive book of comics about books, Book Love, all from Debbie Tung, whose Happily Ever After & Everything In Between I hit back in winter. And Book Love, as a "aren't reading and physical books and bookstores and libraries and curling up to read just totally awesome" book, will be a lot like similar books - such as Grant Snider's I Will Judge You by Your Bookshelves, which I also read toward the end of winter.

So, yeah: this is like A + B. Because it's on the same topic as B by the author of A. Not a huge stretch, I admit.

As I understand it, Tung started out making comics online. Those comics tended to run to some specific themes - like her relationship with the guy she married, or books, or being an introvert - and all of those themes became books collecting her comics. (Having been in the sausage factory myself, I know I'm hugely simplifying: I bet she created almost as many new comics for each book as she reprinted, for example.)

This was the second one; it came before Happily Ever After but after Quiet Girl in a Noisy World, in 2019.

And it is a whole bunch of comics, mostly four square panels to a small-format page, about how awesome books are. If you're my age, you can probably predict every beat, ever bit of joy, every wonderful thing Tung celebrates. That's not bad; it just shows that Book Love is in a particular genre - and it's a lovely, positive, warm & fuzzy entry in that genre, which has and will make a lot of people happy to read it.

I am not quite this uncritically "books are kewl" in my own life - partially because I'm not uncritical about anything and partially because I used to do books for a living. But even a grump like me can enjoy a sweet, fun book like this, so unless you are substantially grumpier than I am, I assume you will enjoy it, too.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Crazy in Poughkeepsie by Daniel Pinkwater

Poughkeepsie is one of the great American place names - great as a name, I mean. Some places are great because of their image, or what has happened there. But a few are great purely because of their names - I could also mention Walla Walla and Oshkosh. I wouldn't say Poughkeepsie is a particularly crazy place, though I only lived there for a few years, during college, a long time ago. But any place can be crazy for the right people at the right time.

And any place in a Daniel Pinkwater book is going to be at least a little crazier and unusual than default normal to begin with.

Pinkwater has been writing books - mostly for people who are not quite adult yet, with the exception of the excellent Afterlife Diet - for pretty much my entire life, and they've been wonderful, unique things particularly well-suited to the kind of weird kids who read a lot and grow up to read blogs, think interesting thoughts, and live the lives they dreamed about when they were young. His books for young readers often tend to come in series, or clumps, or clusters - from the Magic Moscow books to the Snarkout Boys to the Hoboken Chicken Emergency, and including several things that don't have a name, like the Neddiad - Yggyssey - Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl not-at-all-a-trilogy.

Crazy in Poughkeepsie continues that trend; it's loosely related to Pinkwater's last novel, Adventures of a Dwergish Girl, which was also set in the Poughkeepsie area. (Pinkwater himself has lived in the Hudson Valley for several decades now, and he's generally tended to set books in the places he's lived - Chicago and Hoboken are two other examples.)

This time out, it seems to be the modern day, since a secondary character is concerned with climate change, but all of Pinkwater's books take place in a somewhat timeless, definitely unique world - some are clearly set in the past (mostly the '50s, era of Pinkwater's own youth), but most are "now, more or less." How much more and how much less is left to each reader to determine, particularly if she's wondering just how old Molly the Dwerg is, and if it's the same Molly in Cat-Whiskered (explicitly in the '50s) and Dwergish (maybe the '80s, maybe now, maybe not).

Our narrator, the standard Pinkwater smart, not-thin, quirky kid, is Mick this time out. Mick lives in Poughkeepsie, and does not think it's at all crazy. But his big brother Maurice has just come back from a Himalayan trip having successfully found a guru, and that guru - Lumpo Smythe-Finkel, originally from New Jersey - has been installed in the extra bed in Mick's room, along with his dog Lhasa. Luckily, Mick is in a happy mood from summer camp - he may be the only character in a novel for young readers I've ever seen who is happy and satisfied from his summer-camp experience - and he gets along well with his new roommates.

The guru, in fact, insists that Mick is his real disciple, since Maurice is now busy with a part-time job and community college. Mick doesn't entirely agree, but he likes wandering the streets of Poughkeepsie with the guru and Lhasa...and his life is becoming more interesting because of the guru.

Various odd Pinkwaterian events follow from there, more or less logically and absolutely reasonably: the Pinkwater world is quirkier and happier than our own, with some dangers and problems but nothing that smart and thoughtful people can't work out between themselves. I've always wanted to live in a Pinkwater world, and one of the great sadnesses of my life is the continual realization that I don't. But we can all escape into a Pinkwater world at any time, if the real one is too much or just because we want to be happy.

Yes, that's it. Read Crazy in Poughkeepsie if you want to be happy. Pinkwater encapsulates the smart-kid sense of a big wide world full of possibilities and neat stuff better than anyone else - does it so well even crusty old people can feel that as strongly as when they were twelve. Read this book, read Young Adult Novel, read The Education of Robert Nifkin. But read Pinkwater, and be happy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Ye by Guilherme Petreca

We are in a vaguely medieval world, with peasants in a countryside, bustling cities of commerce, and wide oceans plagued by pirates. If anyone rules this world, we don't know who: our viewpoint is at the level of those peasants, and any rulers don't impinge on their lives.

What matters, though, is The Colorless King, something like the devil figure of this world. The Colorless King is responsible for "all plagues and wars, all suffering and tragedy," which sounds to me like it neatly absolves human beings of any responsibility for bad things. We do see him in this world: he is real, he has power, and he does at least some of the things the humans say he does. How much those humans are responsible for their own actions, though - that's left vaguer than the definitive narration at the beginning of the book.

Our narrator and viewpoint is a young man. His name is Ye and so is the book's. The only thing he can say is his name, for a McGuffin-y psychological reason that the reader suspects will be solved by the end of his story. And, as he must, he is forced to venture out across that wide world, alone, to fix a burden put on him by The Colorless King. We see that burden laid; we know it is real. It's that kind of book - there are subtleties, but it's not possible to deny the central supernatural plot.

If we're familiar with stories, we suspect some of the shape of this one: Ye will travel widely, will be shifted unexpectedly, will be delayed and misrouted and abducted and capsized, as he heads towards a specific place and person we see him reach in the first few pages. We may also suspect a story like this must be circular, and that Ye will end up back in his native village, wiser and more experienced and ready to settle into that rural (paradise? rut?) for the rest of his now-blessed life.

If we expect things like that, we will not be mistaken.

Guilherme Petreca, a Brazilian cartoonist and art director, has apparently had a longer career in his native country, but Ye is the only work of his translated into English so far. It is the kind of universal, fabulist story that tends to travel well, so it was likely a good choice. It tells durable lessons in mostly the straightforward language of a folktale or legend. The art is just a bit mannered, the buildings with slightly askew proportions and the people with small features in large blocky faces, as if to signpost that the story is not entirely realistic, that we are to universalize it and not just think of it as this one story about this one young man. 

I could quibble with the details of the fable, but what good would that do? Fables tell particular kinds of lessons, and Ye fits that bill closely. It does what it sets out to do, and does it well, with art that's particularly strong at suddenly shifting from generally soft, pleasant colors into deep black spreads to indicate the workings of the Colorless King. I don't think Ye was meant, specifically, for younger readers, but it's the kind of book that would work well with them: simple enough, with enough depth, about the right kind of person on the right kind of journey.

All in all, I'd call it a success, and hope that more of Petreca's work has a chance to get translated.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of June 25, 2022

So, the next few weeks of "Reviewing the Mail" will be a slight cheat. I recently got a big box of remainders from HamiltonBook - which, as always, I recommend for people like me who enjoy diving through vast lists of books and finding odd cheap things to buy.

And I'm going to parcel that big box out into three weekly posts, because I don't enjoy sitting here and typing stuff about twelve books all at once. And the box fairly cleanly falls into three categories, or at least I can divide it into three categories.

First up is Skiffy, four books of SFF by names that may be familiar:

The Arrest is the 2020 novel by Jonathan Lethem, who I think of as a writer I read regularly but just realized the only thing I've covered in the fifteen-year life of this blog was his Omega the Unknown comic. So I guess I haven't read any of his novels in at least a decade. This is one of those cozy catastrophes, all about the people left behind, where we're probably not supposed to think about how billions of people died of starvation or something. In this case, it's a world where "cars, guns, computers, and airplanes, for starters" stopped working, which means megadeaths within days (see: food distribution). I expect that won't impinge on the book at all, which is about a former-screenwriter and his asshole ex-friend.

Lethem is a good writer, but he's also someone I always find myself arguing with in my head - non-fiction, comics, or novels, doesn't matter - which is good intellectual exercise even if it's not always entertaining in the normal way.

Hummingbird Salamander is Jeff VanderMeer's most recent novel, a standalone thing that I think is somewhere between an ecothriller and SF. (Or maybe both. Probably some fungus, too.) VanderMeer is a writer I think I do like, and keep gathering his books without ever reading them at half the speed I acquire them. I have no explanation for this phenomenon.

The Sundering is the middle book of Walter Jon Williams' "Dread Empire's Fall" space opera trilogy; I think the series has grown at least two books since them. I had the original mass-market paperbacks of this series on a shelf, and I was expecting to read the three of them straight through for a potential SFBC omnibus, but then I was no longer in a position to buy books for the SFBC, and I kinda stopped reading all of the thing I had on that for-work list. I then lost those original books in my 2011 flood.

But I've read just about everything else Williams has written - he's a great, versatile writer who has done many different things really well - so I might just find time to read a big space opera series, as long as it's from him. So I'm gathering these again.

And Interlibrary Loan is Gene Wolfe's last, posthumous novel. I have no idea if he actually finished it before he died, and I'm not confident I would be able to tell, anyway - Wolfe was always a tricky, sneaky writer who left out vast swaths of what other writers would consider vitally important information.

Amazon seems to think this is a sequel to A Borrowed Man, which I have but have not read, and the titles/ideas certainly line up. So they may be right.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Quote of the Week: Among the Crops of the Locale Are

The dead and pieces of the dead turn up in El Salvador everywhere, every day, as taken for granted as in a nightmare, or a horror movie. Vultures of course suggest the presence of a body. A knot of children on the street suggest the presence of a body. Bodies turn up in the brush of vacant lots, in the garbage thrown down ravines in the richest districts, in public rest rooms, in bus stations. Some are dropped in Lake Ilopango, a few miles easy of the city, and wash up near the lakeside cottages and clubs frequented by what remains in San Salvador of the sporting bourgeoisie. 

 - Joan Didion, Salvador, p.351 in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Salvador by Joan Didion

Reporters write about moments, about places, about the intersection of the two: what it's like to be here when it is now. Some pieces are more obvious about it than others.

The novella-length essay Salvador is very obvious: this is El Savador in 1982. It may be germane to other places and other times - other civil wars, other death squads, other countries in turmoil, other groups of disappeared, other counts of mounting bodies every morning - but it is particular.

Joan Didion went there, for what seems to be about two weeks in February, with her husband John Gregory Dunne (who is never named here, but referenced). She talked with government officials and NGO people, intellectuals and other reporters - anyone she could talk to, it seems. She traveled as much as she could, as much as was safe: that doesn't seem to have been that much. El Salvador is a small country - Didion pointedly notes that it's smaller than several counties in her native California - but it was war-torn and full of armed men in 1982, and bodies appeared in specific, almost ritual spots nearly every morning.

She does not give us much of the geopolitical background: she does get into the sea of acronyms of political parties-cum-paramilitaries, but it's confusing and unclear, I think on purpose, like hearing the complicated story of some other family's messy feuds. The US was trying to impose peace, but not quite succeeding. Right-wing death squads were very active, though most of the deaths they caused were "officially" unsolved. If I'm reading between the lines, the left-wing rebels were responsible for far fewer deaths, but maybe not for lack of trying.

It was the kind of place and the kind of time where a lot of things were generally assumed but not said officially, where impressions and news reports were more important than actual facts, since the actual facts were suppressed or not known or considered unimportant or just neglected. That kind of place leads to conspiracies - some of them theories, many of them real.

Didion was the right kind of writer for a place and a time like that. She was always concerned with both what really is true (but isn't said) and what is presented for public consumption (and is carefully constructed out of a thin scaffolding of truth garlanded by lies and fancy). El Savador in 1982 was mostly image, with a substance avoided and hidden and manipulated. This is a good, though harrowing, look at what that was like, and may be a useful reference for other countries and other times that are in their own civil wars, or may be pushed into them.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Saint Cole by Noah Van Sciver

There is no Saint Cole. No one was ever canonized under that name - there is a Saint Colette, but given the subject of Noah Van Sciver's graphic novel, there's no chance that's the reference meant. It is not the name of a town. It is not metaphorical; there is no one named Cole in the book.

"Saint Cole" is a random squawk, emitted by a minor character whose whole point is that he's mentally damaged. It is meaningless. I have no idea why it's the title of this book. There is something vaguely ironic that the story of a man named Joe who is deeply unsaintly is named Saint Cole, but 99% of life is that ironic to begin with. It's not much to hang a story on.

Saint Cole is the story of an alcoholic, a loser who thinks he isn't a loser, a bad man who thinks he's pretty good. I find that I have less and less sympathy for characters like that every year, so I may not be giving Joe his due here.

But, to be honest, Joe isn't due much. Sure, he works long hours, but he's a jerk who drinks too much, has no aims or plans, and is unpleasant to everyone around him pretty much continually. Just working hard doesn't buy you anything.

Joe is a waiter at the restaurant New Yorkies, in some minor city somewhere: it's roughly walkable, so it's not deep suburbia, and Joe lives in an apartment with a parking lot. He's in his late twenties, living with his girlfriend Nicola and their baby son. They're just barely making it: Joe takes every last shift he can, working every single day, and Nicole stays home with the baby, which Joe resents. Over the course of four days, starting on a Saturday, Joe...well, I shouldn't give it away. But Joe is a loser and a fuck-up, so he fucks up and he loses things. Take that as read.

Angela, Joe's mother-in-law, moves in with them on the first day, which adds to the friction. He doesn't like her, for reasons that don't seem sufficient. But then, Joe hates just about everyone and everything: he doesn't seem to need reasons. He's just that kind of young man, fueled by anger and self-loathing and loathing for everything else in equal measure. Oh, and by alcohol. He's fueled by a lot of alcohol.

Saint Cole is the story of Joe drinking and then fucking things up, to to give a quick log-line. I called him an alcoholic before, but he really comes across as a drunk: a guy who isn't compelled to drink; he just drinks because he wants to, and he always wants to drink more. That kind of guy can easily turn into an alcoholic, but I don't think Joe is there yet.

Yet.

Van Sciver draws this in a mostly indy style, more conventional than I remember his The Hypo being. It's all thin lines, lots of details of dingy rooms and sad lives: indy in the matter and the style equally.

I'm not a good reader for a book like this, and I can't really recommend it. If you like stories of self-destructive losers more than I do, you might take a look. It's smartly written, it looks good, and Van Sciver tells the story well. But it's an unpleasant story about an unpleasant man, and all I felt at the end was happy that I didn't have to spend any more time with Joe.