Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Luck of the Bodkins by P.G. Wodehouse

I forget just how much P.G. Wodehouse's books twine together. Yes, obviously he has the clear series: Jeeves and Blandings and Psmith, most obviously. But most of his books are set in a common world, even when he doesn't say so.

So I was amused to see that The Luck of the Bodkins, an officially non-series book that I just read, is a loose sequel to Heavy Weather, a Blandings Castle book I read last year, but a different sequel than Full Moon, another Blandings book I read earlier this year.

Full Moon comes back to Blandings; Bodkins follows Monty Bodkins, but they're both quintessentially Wodehousian, about young men and their young women, minor criminal capers, the struggle to find a suitable position (pays well, mollifies gruff older relatives, allows one to be near the loved one), and that sunny Wodehousian world, one part dream, one part Edwardian, and one part inter-war.

This time out, there are three young men: Monty, who is rich but needs to prove to his fiancée's uncle that he is stable and responsible by keeping a job for a year; Ambrose Tennyson, a novelist engaged to a spitfire Hollywood actress, Lotus Blossom; and Ambrose's younger brother Reggie Tennyson, being shipped by his family off to Montreal to take a dreary office job. (Reggie will find a girl to fall in love with over the course of the book.)

Most of the action takes place on the transatlantic liner RMS Atlantic, on its nearly week-long journey from England to New York. There, most of the cast are supposedly aided - but not actually so - by the steward Albert Peasemarch, who is specific enough that he never became a caricature to me. (Though maybe if I knew better the specific assumptions Wodehouse was working from in 1935, he would have been more obviously stereotypical.)

All three circle Ivor Llewellyn, head of the Superba-Llewellyn film studio, who also has to smuggle a very valuable necklace following the demands of his spitfire actress wife - kept off-stage the entire book, to better be a gorgon. Ivor is worried about Customs detectives, and Monty actually is a detective (of a sort), which fuels a certain amount of confusion and funny scenes. Lotus Blossom ("Lottie," originally of the Murphys of Hoboken) has a contract with Llewlleyn, as does Ambrose as the novel opens.

But Ivor discovers Ambrose is "the wrong Tennyson" - i.e., not the poet then dead for about thirty years - and tears up that contract. And having a spitfire actress nearby breaks up Monty's engagement. And Reggie is scheming to find a way to avoid being shut up in boring old Montreal - wouldn't some kind of job in Hollywood be better?

Complications multiply, including a stuffed Mickey Mouse and the singing career of Peasemarch, but, in the end, all of the couples are re-united (or united, in Reggie's case, as he falls in love with Ivor's sister-in-law), the diamond necklace is successfully smuggled, and all of the people who need a contract with Superba-Llewellyn get one, for the obligatory happy ending.

This was longer than the Wodehouses I've read recently, maybe because he had three couples to juggle, but it's prime-era Wodehouse, and a joy to read. As usual, I highly recommend reading Wodehouse whenever life gets to be too serious or you just need something dependably funny, sunny, and lovely.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Glenn Gould: A Life Off Tempo by Sandrine Revel

There's no obvious reason why there would be a loose series of biographical graphic novels, mostly about North American figures, translated from European originals. But there is one, from NBM, and it's been running for a decade or so.

It's not really a "series," I suppose: there's no unified trade dress. But the books tend to list each other on their card pages, and it's clearly one distinct thread in the books NBM publishes. And I've been coming to them, semi-randomly, as I notice that each of them exists.

It comes out of the fact that Europe has a larger and more robust comics industry, I suppose: that the world of bandes desinées is more varied than the US Wednesday Crowd equivalent - full of semi-junky adventure stories, sure, like any popular medium, but not defined by a specific, tight conception of those semi-junky adventure stories.

Anyway, that's how I came to read an artsy, allusive, non-linear "biography" of the mid-20th century pianist Glenn Gould, from French creator (painter, cartoonist, maker of children's books, illustrator, etc.) Sandrine Revel.

It's Glenn Gould: A Life Off Tempo, and it's a difficult book to sum up. It's a fine read: not bogged down with facts and dates and minutia no reader will remember, it tells a personal story about Gould's life, focused on his emotions and interior life, as expressed in what he did and said. It jumps around in time quite a lot, without signposting any of the eras: readers will look to see how old Gould is on each page to place them, and probably have a vaguer sense of overall chronology.

(I had to look him up to get the dates: he was born in 1932 and died, quite young, in 1982. He was also Canadian, which is probably more important than it might seem.)

Revel has a very illustrative style - I can see how she'd have success in books for children; she makes great pictures rather than trying to ape reality - and her work here often has lots of panels to show movement or time passing, especially of Gould playing piano. I would not have thought playing piano was something that would come through clearly in a comics format, but Revel does a brilliant job of that here, leading off with a visionary sequence that sets the tone and includes most of a page of just close-ups of Gould's hands as they form notes. (I know she has some specific piece in mind here, and I bet actual musicians can also tell what that is.)

So this is a biography of feeling and sense, not of detail and sequence. We see Gould a bit in his late childhood, but it's mostly about his adult career. He had a lot of quirks, to put it mildly, and Revel displays those rather than explaining or describing them. It's as if she's transformed Gould's work, which was all about sound, into visual elements, making a comics version of the Goldberg Variations.

I came into this knowing very little about Gould; I've probably heard his work - I went through a big Classical phase in the '90s, when I was more of an old man than I am now - but I'm not any kind of fan or expert. Readers who do know Gould, or how to play the piano, or the world of classical recordings, will probably get more out of this than I did. But I got more than enough, and I assume that you, whoever you are, would as well. This is a visionary biography of a visionary man, that brilliantly transforms sound into sight through its pages.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Finder: The Rescuers by Carla Speed McNeil

Creators have different views of their stories than readers do. There's background details that they mean as clues or indicators; there's the question of whether a series of events is unusual or typical; there's all kinds of things about a fictional world that stay mostly in that creator's head, molding the story but not necessarily being said in the story.

So reading a book with creator notes can be a very different experience than reading without them: the reader gets much more of the unfiltered Creator Experience, all of the "this means that" and "I wish there had been space to explain XYZ" and "everybody did M in those days; it was a super-popular fad for PDQ reasons."

I say this because I've been reading Carla Speed McNeil's Finder stories - thorny, thoughtful SFnal comics set on a transformed Earth perhaps a few thousand years on, after some unspecified major upheavals - in the omnibus Library editions, which have extensive, detailed page-by-page notes by McNeil. And I think I get wrapped around the notes, which give a sense of how McNeil creates worlds, how she thinks about societies, what she's interested in exploring about how people react to each other. And I frankly find that those notes make her societies feel much worse to me: more oppressive, more horrible, less friendly, more overwhelming, just utterly predetermined and regimented in varied but always unpleasant ways.

So I read Talisman a decade ago, in an edition without notes - and still spent time there digging into the worldbuilding and assumptions, since I'm that kind of reader even when a creator doesn't give me a key to the puzzle. But I've really been thinking more seriously about this world after reading Finder Library, Vol. 1 in 2018 and then three stories in Vol. 2 over the past year: Dream Sequence, Mystery Date, and now The Rescuers.

I still think this world is horribly dystopian, probably even more so than McNeil does herself. It's one of those "two diametrically opposed opposite ways of life" worlds - think of The Dispossessed - and those tend, at least for me, to make both options cruel and forced and unappealing.

But this time around, I had a related thought, which helped contextualize things. Creators always have ways of organizing worlds and stories in their heads, like everyone else - some ways of thinking are more typical than others. We're all familiar with the Engineer Method: every problem can be solved, everything can be reduced to specifics, everything is a matter of bringing the appropriate resources and insight to bear with the appropriate leverage.

McNeil is something like the opposite of that. She works from an Anthropological model: what weird things would this kind of society do, if they were allowed to do anything? What's the usual way these things go, and how can that be more story-rich? How much contrast can I draw between these two societies; how far can I push each of them? And what kind of unlikely things will grow up in the interstices between societies?

This is a world full of people who do things The Right Way, and would never consider not doing so. Depending on their specific society, The Right Way is entirely different - but it's always detailed and specific and demanding. There is a neat little box for everyone, and everyone is kept within their neat little boxes - no matter what, no matter who (as specifically comes up in conversation in this book) needs to be murdered to keep those boxes neat.

I tend to doubt societies actually work like that. People fight against boxes, all the time. (Particularly when The Right Way includes "kill those people.") They have pressure to stay in those boxes, definitely - but a lot of that pressure is official, and McNeil's anthro focus means we never see the official side: law and government are vestigial or remote in this world, and what we see is that everything is enforced by custom.

But those are the kinds of stories McNeil wants to tell - and heightening tension through rigid customs is not anything new. I might wish we saw more official teeth in the enforcement of the Right Ways, and not just random people, but that's not the kind of story she wants to tell, apparently.

The Rescuers is a detective story, and I'm circling the questions about the underlying world because detective stories are all about learning the details of a particular crime and finding out the secrets of the people involved; I'm not going to spoil that.

Series-hero Jaeger is back in Anvard, the gigantic domed city that's the setting for most of the stories in this series. He's hanging out in some vague capacity at the palatial mansion of a nouveau riche guy who supports (and somewhat indulges) the "Ascian" people - the two societies in this world are the far-too-Amerindian "Ascians," who live as nomads and are Good because they are Close to the Earth (but are also horribly superstitious and seem to live short, dangerous lives); and the civilized domed-city-dwellers, who are organized into a huge array of genetic "clans," who police tightly allowed divergences from their standard (think dog breeds, but people) and tend to all work in a small related cluster of jobs allowed to that clan. (Don't think about where food for the cities comes from: the cities are all metal and stone; everything else is howling wasteland filled with violent tribes and what seems to be a large number of also often-violent nonhuman sapients. This is a Hobbesian world at its core.)

So: Baron Manavellin has a pseudo-19th century Great House, in parklike grounds, carved out from the bottom level of a vast Trantorian city. It's not clear how he became rich, but in Finder it always seems that fame precedes fortune, which is the case here: he was a hero as a boy, saving dozens of other kids from yet another (accepted, everyday) horror of this world. Manavellin has a mostly-Ascian staff, for I think mostly benevolent-overlord reasons. Jaeger is there; again, it's not clear why or what he's doing, other than mooching off other people, which frankly I think is the point of his life.

(Once again: I do not find Jaeger as compelling or positive as the author evidently does. He's like that one cousin who reliably shows up at dinner-time and equally reliably is nowhere to be found at chores-time.)

A shocking crime takes place during a big fete at the Great House. Police detective Smithson takes charge of the investigation; he's smarter and more dedicated to his job than is typical for police in this area of Anvard. (This, of course, is typical of the detective story: the detective must have almost-insurmountable obstacles, and must be battling nearly alone.) Jaeger has skills that would aid the investigation, but the place of the Ascians in Anvard is also tentative and shaky; they're not citizens, and what (few and paltry) legal protections might apply to the clans don't cover them. So he both doesn't want to help, and doesn't think it will do any good.

Well, of course it won't do any good! This is Finder; everyone has to stay in their boxes and let the standard horrible society run the same way it always does. There's no other way for people to live and organize themselves, is there?

There's a secondary plot as well, but I'll leave that out. It's more anthropology, more "we have to live this way because of Reasons; we can never alter our Ways because our Ways are The Right Ways."

I should say here that The Rescuers is a tragedy, more or less. Finder stories before this have mostly been about people finding kinds of happiness despite their straitjacket societies and tiny allowed decision-spaces. But The Rescuers is the "Oops! All Tragedy!" of the Finder-verse, in which all those anthropological details make a thicket no one can manage to get out of in time to make anything positive.

So this one is a downer, but it's a downer deeply informed by all of the bedrock assumptions and details of this world. I still think this world is mostly a tragedy, most of the time, for most of the people in it, and McNeil has just previously carefully picked her moments and characters to show a few non-tragedy scenes. (I think she disagrees; that's how fiction is.)

It's excellent science fiction, full of details and moments, in a big, rich society. (Not a nice one, but how many societies, real or fictional, are inherently nice?) I would never in a million years want to live in any world created by McNeil, but they're engrossing to visit in fictional form.

Monday, September 18, 2023

This Year: 2007

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

A decade ago, I posted the video for this song as "the truest love song ever."

I stand by my words.

My song for 2007 was then, and still is, Someone to Love by Fountains of Wayne, the band that took its name from a homegoods store I used to drive by almost every single day. (The store is gone now. The band is broken up, too, I think: was even before Adam Schlesinger died.)

Fountains of Wayne was always too smart for their own good, writing pop songs that were uneasily aware that pop songs were silly and ephemeral, songs that twisted their premises one or two more twists tighter, squeezing out the casual audience as they went.

But that extra twist is what made them brilliant, at least for a relentless intellectualizer like me. All the way back at their first album, they had a song named Please Don't Rock Me Tonight. And they had doomed-love songs from the jump as well, with the lovely She's Got a Problem.

But Someone to Love takes it further, in impeccable power-pop format. We get two strong verses, each introducing a main character: Seth Shapiro and Beth Mackenzie. They're both alone in the big city, both have quirky details quickly described, both looking for someone special.

We know how this kind of song goes. We're poised for the meet-cute and the forever-after.

After each verse, we hit that super-punchy refrain:

Don't give out
Don't give up
One of these nights you might find someone to love

But then the short third verse just murders the whole concept of a love song, in four quick lines.

Seth Shapiro is trying in vain
To hail a taxi in the morning in the pouring rain
Beth Mackenzie sees one just up ahead
She cuts in front of him and leaves him for dead

The entire song stops, catches its breath, and then...

We jump back to the refrain like a whipcrack, but it's almost wordless this last time. There's only one thing they can say, only one last thing left.

Someone to love

That's what we all want. But this is not a song about getting what we want. It's not the song we thought it was at all, but a colder, sadder, devastating song instead. That's probably why I like it so much.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Quote of the Week: In Which Shade is Cast at Great Velocity and Pinpoint Precision

Mr. Woodward's aversion to engaging the ramifications of what people say to him has been generally understood as an admirable quality, at best a mandarin modesty, at worst a kind of executive big-picture focus, the entirely justifiable oversight of someone with a more important game to play. Yet what we see in The Choice is something more than a matter of an occasional inconsistency left unexplored in the rush of the breaking story, a stray ball or two left unfielded in the heat of the opportunity, as Mr. Woodward describes his role, "to sit with many of the candidates and key players and ask about the questions of the day as the campaign unfolded." What seems most remarkable in this Woodward book is exactly what seemed remarkable in the previous Woodward books, each of which was presented as insiders' inside story and each of which went on to become a number-one bestseller: these are books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.

 - Joan Didion, "Political Pornography," in Political Fictions (p.854 in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live)

Every reporter, in the development of a story, depends on and coddles, or protects, his or her sources. Only when the protection of the source gets in the way of telling the story does the reporter face a professional, even a moral, choice: he can blow the source and move to another beat or he can roll over, shape the story to continue serving the source. The necessity for making this choice between the source and the story seems not to have come up in the course of writing Mr. Woodward's books, for good reason: since he proceeds from a position in which the very impulse to sort through the evidence and reach a conclusion is seen as suspect, something to be avoided in the higher interest of fairness, he has been able, consistently and conveniently, to define the story as that which the source tells him.

 - ibid, p.864

Over the next several years, first on the Paula Jones story for the Post and then on the Paula Jones and the Kathleen Willey and the Monica Lewinsky stories for Newsweek, [Michael] Isikoff would encounter a number of such choices, moments in which a less single-minded reporter might well have let attention stray to the distinctly peculiar way the story was unfolding itself, the way in which corroborating witnesses and incriminating interviews would magically materialize, but Isikoff kept his eye on the ball, his story, which was, exactly, "uncovering" Clinton.

 - Didion, "Vichy Washington," (p.896 in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live)

And, most comprehensively:

In fact the interests and priorities of the press have remained reliably the same: then as now, the press could be relied upon to report a rumor or a hint down to the ground (tree it, bag it, defoliate the forest for it, destroy the village for it), but only insofar as that rumor or hint gave promise of advancing the story of the day, the shared narrative, the broad line of whatever story was at the given moment commanding the full resources of the reporters covering it and the columnists commenting on it and the on-tap experts analyzing it on the talk shows.

 - Didion, "Clinton Agonistes,"  (p.871 in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live)

Friday, September 15, 2023

The Unbelievable Unteens by Jeff Lemire and Tyler Crook

I've never created superhero characters. [1] So I could be talking out of my ass here. But I don't think there's anything inherent in the form that requires new work to slavishly follow the models of previously created universes, so that even the slowest reader can point to the models and get it.

I could be wrong, as I said. It certainly looks like that is absolutely required, because it happens every damn time.

The Black Hammer universe, as created by writer Jeff Lemire and his various collaborators, has been incredibly derivative from the jump, and I have to believe this is very, very deliberate. Lemire could write about people in fanciful wedgie-inducing costumes that are not immediately reminiscent of the comics he read in the '70s and '80s, so he must be doing it - over and over again, relentlessly - on purpose.

The Unbelievable Unteens is the X-Men rip-off. OK, maybe there's a bit of Teen Titans in the DNA, too, but not much. This 2022 collection gathers the four-issue series of the same name, plus the Free Comic Book Day story from 2019 "Black Hammer Presents...Horrors to Come" (co-written by Lemire with Ray Fawkes, with art by David Rubin). I think that FCBD story has already appeared in another collection, since it was very familiar.

The other big touchpoint of Black Hammer is nostalgia, as required in any derivative superhero story. So these are not stories about original heroes in a modern world, but instead stories about Not-That-Guy (for purely copyright reasons) in Almost-That-Story, from Back When You Were Young And Life Was Wonderful. Some of the stories specifically look back, and some are set in the past as a look back. But the creative eye never ever looks forward, or even to anything demonstrably modern.

So Unteens is a story set in the late '90s, where the Unteens are a fictional superhero group, written and drawn by Jane Ito. But! They were actually real, an actual '80s superteam, and Ito was one of them! A shocking revelation from her past will bring her face-to-face with her old teammates, and they must revisit Their Darkest Hour to save One Of Their Own from the horrible fate she's been in for roughly a decade. (I suppose I should give Lemire half-credit for a story that obviously references The Dark Phoenix Saga but actually has a different plot.)

This story is shorter and more direct than most of the Black Hammer-verse pieces, which made the end feel rushed and perfunctory. Previously, the sidebar stories have been more complex and interesting - they were actually stories instead of exercises in keeping the core cast in pretty much exactly the same situation while giving the illusion of Massive Events Unfolding. (Wait: didn't I already say this was a derivative superhero series? I hate repeating myself.)

As always, Black Hammer stories are professional, populated with realistic people who talk like human beings and have human concerns that sometimes even are important to the plot. The giant wodges of standard superhero furniture are dull and obvious, but they're the point of the exercise, so I have to assume they are not dull and obvious to the target audience. Given that this one was shorter, and possibly rushed to a conclusion, I wonder if even that target audience is beginning to tire of the endless exercise.

I suppose I can live in hope, as always.


[1] Well, not seriously. My friend group in college made up jokey superhero versions of ourselves, and I was 5-Man, with the incredible power to control anything in a group of five, inspired by a random shirt I had with a giant athletic-jersey-style 5 on the chest. I think we made up other characters not based on ourselves, too, and maybe some villains. My other main contribution to superherodom was the previously mentioned String Boy. We were all very fond of the Legion of Substitute Heroes, at least as a model for character creation, which may explain some of it.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Political Fictions by Joan Didion

We don't call it "suspension of disbelief" when we talk about non-fiction, but there's a similar mechanism in play: do we trust this writer? Do we believe she is telling, not just the truth as she understands it and saw it, but that she's coming from a viewpoint we understand and can follow, that we accept that her conclusions will naturally follow from her premises?

I've been reading Joan Didion's non-fiction over the past couple of years, in the big early-Aughts omnibus We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, and one interesting thing I've noticed is that I was willing to believe her instinctively about the '60s and '70s, when I was either non-existent or a child, but I started to question her premises once we hit the '90s and events that I saw myself as an adult.

I don't necessarily disagree with what she says, but I find I'm more skeptical, more interested in thinking through the implications and wondering what she's saying and not saying, what her premises were and how they rolled out over the years since.

Political Fictions is a collection of essays from 2001 - I say essays rather than reportage because Didion was always Didion, but these are close to reportage, some of them I-went-there-and-saw-this pieces and some of them what-all-of-these-things-mean pieces. Didion's introduction notes that she started being asked to write about politics with the 1988 presidential election: this has two pieces coming out of that campaign, one on 1992, a couple from the mid-90s leading up to '96, and a cluster around the Clinton impeachment and the lead-up to 2000. She's never engaging in horse-race coverage, which she disparages several times; her aim is to see larger pictures and bigger implications.

The through-line is the rise of the puritanical right wing, though she doesn't identify it as such; the first few pieces position this impulse as more bipartisan, frankly: as both parties narrowing their focus to "likely voters," to the relatively affluent and suburban and engaged. And she's never as plugged into specific campaign and political strategies as the "insiders," hers is specifically a view from someone elite - in the general, often derogatory sense - but not part of the quote-unquote Washington elite, a smart and engaged writer who knows a lot and has written about a lot but doesn't speak and think in the code of campaigns and elections.

Post-Gingrich, and especially post-impeachment, Didion is clearer-eyed about who is pushing the moral line, why they're doing it, who they hope to influence, and some inkling of the world they're trying to make. (We live in that world now, though that impulse fractured once it succeeded with Bush II and other strains of the right-wing coalition grabbed their own pieces of power, especially the war-hungry neocons.)

But I found myself wishing she had a longer view, and a clearer one, in the early essays here. There's an unspoken long shadow of the bland Reagan prosperity that she never mentions, the way the economy was good enough for those younger and/or poorer potential voters to quietly drop out of the process and let a mostly white, mostly suburban, mostly middle-aged (as of the late '80s, so Silent and Greatest and some early Boomers) bloc's concerns become cemented as "what America wants." She doesn't mention race at all, except obliquely, when talking about Jesse Jackson during the '88 campaign, but the US was a whiter country in those days, and the voting population even whiter still.

(She may have meant that, all of that. She may have thought she was implying it clearly enough. It's hard to say, thirty years later, when premises and expectations have shifted repeatedly.)

So there's a lot of interesting thoughts here, and a lot of interesting moments in the momentum of the American political world. This is a book that helps explain how we got to where we are today: not conclusive, not definitive, but indicative and useful.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Grandville Force Majeure by Bryan Talbot

This was the fifth and last of the "Grandville" stories, detective stories set in a vaguely steampunk world with some (mostly set-dressing) alternate-historical elements and an entirely anthropomorphic-animal cast. (Yes, it was an odd combination, which creator Bryan Talbot hit upon for reasons of influences and visual ideas rather than logical worldbuilding - but how many creators actually start from "logical worldbuilding" in the first place?) It came out in 2017, and I somehow missed it at the time, after enjoying the first four books of the sequence over the previous decade: the original Grandville, Mon Amour, Bete Noir, and Noel.

"Grandville" is the in-universe nickname of Paris, which was more important in the previous books than in Grandville Force Majeure, which takes place entirely in London. (Talbot is British, and his cast has been primarily British - his villains have tended to be French, but I've already said he's British once, so now I'm repeating myself.) Our series hero, Detective-Inspector LeBrock (the badger on the cover) is investigating a French crimelord, Tiberius Koenig, who is expanding his operations into London and, predictably, being brutal and destructive as he does so.

Force Majeure presents itself as a thriller, with Koenig's plans specifically to destroy and kill LeBrock seemingly unknown to the detective, but it's actually a mystery, with a long "here's how it really happened" section at the end to tie up loose ends. So, in retrospect, it's not quite as thrilling as it seems at the time; that's a slightly deflating thing to do at the end of a longish book, especially one ending a series.

Otherwise, Force Majeure has the strengths of the series: a big, colorful, quirky world populated with lots of weird characters - some of them Easter eggs to readers who recognize where Talbot has appropriated them from - lots of violent action, a compelling tough-guy central character, and a relatively play-fair detective story. There's less of LeBrock's romance with his ex-whore girlfriend Billie this time, since she's a captive of the fiendish Koenig for a stretch in the middle. And Koenig's plans are much more street-level than the grand world-dominators of the previous books: he's personally attacking LeBrock, but otherwise is just a guy who wants to control drug dealing, prostitution, and other illegal activities in a new territory.

Talbot's afterword teased brand extensions to Grandville - a TTRPG in progress and a TV show optioned - but I don't think those appeared, which is (sadly) the common fate of brand extensions. We did get five books, though, and the beautiful thing about alternate histories is that they don't date - they will be just as odd and specific ten years later as they were when they were created.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Grosz by Lars Fiske

Today I'm going to try to describe a nearly wordless book about an artist I'm not all that familiar with, by an artist I'm not all that familiar with. If I descend into potted history and bland statements, that will be why.

George Grosz - I probably could force Blogger to display the original German spelling of his name, but I don't have the energy for that this morning - was a German painter and caricaturist of the early 20th century (1893-1959). As you probably can guess from the intersection of the time, place, and field, Grosz was artistically radical and politically engaged: he was strongly anti-Nazi from the earliest days, moderately Communist (but, like so many others, disillusioned after a visit to the Soviet Union), and generally anti-clerical and anti-"high society." He escaped Germany with his family just as Hitler rose to power, living in the US for the last twenty-five years of his life before dying in an accident in postwar Berlin very soon after his return there.

Lars Fiske is a cartoonist and artist and maker of other kinds of books; he's Norwegian. His cartooning style is not a million miles away from Grosz's paintings: both are complex, full of overlapping elements and extreme caricature. And, maybe a decade ago, maybe not quite that long, he made a book about Grosz's life. In 2017, Fantagraphics published a US edition as Grosz. I didn't see any indication of a translator, but the text is minimal: Fiske may have done it himself.

Grosz is a potted life, made somewhat more elliptical by being wordless. We see Grosz doing things, and have chapter titles (with what I think are quotes from Grosz) and place/time tags, but we're not told the meanings of events and have to piece it all together ourselves. But we can follow it pretty well: Gorsz was a dandy of a young man, with big ideas for art, served in the army in the Great War where he apparently was wounded, loved American culture and strongly criticized German society, was involved in radical movements both artistic (Dada) and societal (Communism), ran afoul of growing oppression in Germany throughout the '20s, and eventually got away to the US, where his life calmed down substantially.

Fiske's art is extremely energetic, mostly black-and-white with some pops of color (red in particular) and a beige-ish overlay with geometric shapes of white cut out. Gestures are large, faces are caricatured, and he uses strong diagonals throughout - sometimes to divide actions into overlapping panels, sometimes as defining elements, sometimes as vanishing-point lines that he leaves in the drawing, sometimes just to be there. His drawings are visually dense: this is not a book to scan quickly.

I found I got a decent sense of the high points of Grosz's life, and came to like the hawk-nosed guy, who is a bit of a sex-mad loose cannon in Fiske's telling. Probably not just in Fiske's telling, too, and to the end of his life, frankly: Grosz died from injuries sustained by falling down the stairs after a long night drinking. Which is definitely a colorful way to go, especially in your mid-sixties.

Even if you don't care about Grosz - I didn't before I read this - Fiske's strong, assured cartooning and his aggressive linework make this a really visually interesting comic to read.

Monday, September 11, 2023

This Year: 2006

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

Some songs are demanding, even if you're not 100% sure what they're demanding. They hit you hard, overwhelm you, tell you their story. You know it's important. You know it's vital. And you make up your own reasons why, or explore what's there, trying to be sure of the truth.

Wake up you've got a lot of things to do
Wake up the sun is rising without you

My song for 2006 is Quiet as a Mouse, by Margot and the Nuclear So-and-Sos.

It's the kind of song where it's clear something is wrong from the jump, but exactly what is more murky. "Tourists" are doing things - "rob you of your home," "robbed me of my child" - but is that a euphemism for foreign soldiers? Or your own nation's soldiers? Or worse?

And he said times, they gotta change,
but so do we

It's urgent and dangerous, like a war or insurrection. And it's personal in some way - how the speaker feels is important, and shifts from chorus to chorus - "back was broke" to "life and love and hope" to "apathy and hate."

There's a guitar riff in the middle of the chorus that's perfect: a loud buzz saw of an interruption, bam bam bam. This is yet another song that uses that trick that always works: the verses are soft - though they get louder, each to the next - and the end of each chorus ticks up the noise and energy.

I still don't know exactly what this song is about. But I know I don't want the sun to rise without me.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Reviewing the Mail: Week of September 9, 2023

One book this week, from the library.

And it's kinda a funny story - I tried to start reading this bande dessinée omnibus in the Hoopla library app a couple of weeks ago, but found the panels just too small. I decided to see if a real, live book would be better, and put a hold on the physical book in the very same library. (It seems to be slightly larger, so let's see if that makes it easier to read. I find mid-century Eurocomics were made for a larger format than they're usually published in these days.)

The book is Asterix, Vol. 1 by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, the 2021 Papercutz edition collecting the first three books in the series (originally from the early 1960s). I'm pretty sure I read some Asterix books, back when I was a kid, but I have no memory of which ones or when. So I'm expecting this to be one part reading-classic-kids-stuff-as-an-adult, and one part do-I-remember-any-of-this?

Oh, and Asterix, in case you don't know, is a Gaul, in 50 BC. He lives in the one little village not conquered by Rome; he's the little guy on the cover. The Romans are the main (mostly comic) villains, and the Gauls are the heroes in this series which...do I need to underline this bit?...was published in France for the French and created by French people, all about how plucky and brave and smart their ancient ancestors were. The term usually used is "beloved."

Saturday, September 09, 2023

Quote of the Week: Smiles

She smiled and I got that sensation again, the one it's worth getting both your legs cut for. You know the one. I hope you know the one. How does that even work? What is it that makes us weak in the knees and makes our stomachs fall out just because someone smiles? I don't get it.

 - Steven Brust, Tsalmoth, p.106

And also

I didn't turn my head, but I knew she was smiling. I wish I could describe that particular smile. It's like, she was trying not to, but she wasn't really hiding it. Whenever she got that smile I had to remind myself what a tough guy I am so I didn't suddenly turn into a grinning idiot.

 - ibid, p.148

Friday, September 08, 2023

Things We Create by Axel Brechensbauer

We all have stuff. And so we all have relationships with stuff - that table we love, maybe for reasons we can explain. That one kind of packaging we hate, and keep telling our friends it should be changed like this - it's so obvious! Things that work well, things that don't work well. Things that just fit into our lives, and those that stick out - maybe in an interesting way, so we pay attention to it, or maybe in an annoying way, like a table with a top that extends just far enough on one side that you run into it all the time.

Axel Brechensbauer is a designer, sculptor, concept designer - and, obviously, cartoonist. As far as I can tell, he's Swedish, but seems to work currently from a studio in Barcelona. He's thought a lot about objects, their taxonomies and how they fit into human lives. And Things We Create is how he explains, or explores, all of that: how humans make and use objects, the ways those objects can be useful or ornamental, closer to nature or further away, all those questions of desire and usability and beauty and purpose.

Brechensbauer narrates this book himself, as a cartoon-mouse avatar, on large, bright pages that often seem like posters - well, he is a designer, we should expect his book to reflect that. He's fond of taxonomy and schemas; Things is largely an exploration of various ways for dividing, classifying, or organizing objects - physical needs vs. emotional needs, for example, or things that help us work more efficiently vs. things that help us enjoy ourselves more.

It's not exactly footnoted, but Brechensbauer cites experts across a range of disciplines as he goes - Maslow's hierarchy of needs comes in early, and Nietzche makes an appearance as well - as he examines how people think about their things, and how they use those things.

He's got a distinct viewpoint, and these are clearly things he's through about, but Things isn't dogmatic: it  comes across as a exploration rather than a manifesto, a guided wander through ways of thinking about stuff, as a designer talks about the ways this way of thinking is useful, and then about another way of thinking, which can help with something else.

Things is bright and clear and well-organized; it flows well and makes a lot of sense in its arguments and explications. Usually, with a book like this, there will be at least one thing that I balk at, and complain about, but Brechensbauer is reasonable and even-handed enough that I never had a moment like that. I might not find all of these schemas equally useful in my own life, but they all seem valid and plausible, especially for a working designer.

So this is a fine book for thinking about stuff, and clutter in our lives, and how we live with objects - whether you're unhappy with the number and complexity of your objects, trying to focus on truth and beauty, or some other permutation. Before I go, I should also mention Teo Jenish, who translated it: I didn't notice anything about the translation, which means it's a good one.

Thursday, September 07, 2023

Tsalmoth by Steven Brust

This is a flashback. Normally, with a long-running series, I'd say "don't start here." But you probably could start here. It's a decent place to start. And it's a current book that's easy to find, so keep that in mind.

Steven Brust has been writing the adventures of Vlad Taltos for forty years now, and Tsalmoth is the sixteenth of a planned nineteen volumes. (Jhereg was the first, if you're a traditionalist and looking for the best place to start.) There are layers and depths to the world and its explanations - not all of which have been or will be explained - but, at base, it's a far-future fantasy, in which the various kinds of magic might have some  kind of technology really far behind them, or maybe not.

Vlad is an "Easterner" - a normal human - living in the Dragarean Empire. Dragarea is the major power of this world, and its people are a distinct race (gene-engineered from baseline humans, a hundred thousand years ago or so) that resemble traditional ideas of "elfs:" long-lived, tall, slim, no facial hair, aristocratic, obsessed with position and rigidly defined by their seventeen Great Houses (each with its own allowed careers, mental habits, and styles). Vlad is a low-level crimelord in the Dragarean House of the Jhereg; this book is set fairly early in the series (roughly fourth, according to the wiki), when he was rising and successful and planning to get married.

(At this point, I might as well link to my previous posts about books in the series, in reverse chronological order: Vallista, Hawk, Tiassa, Iorich, Jhegaala, and Dzur. I might also mention that the novels are titled after the seventeen Great Houses, plus one for Vlad himself - Taltos, the second book written - and a planned final book, The Last Contract. My post on Hawk is probably the most new-reader friendly, more background and less what-does-this-new-scrap-of-information-mean.)

So Tsalmoth is like the first three books, and a couple of other flashback volumes since: a caper book about an assassin in a fantasy world, not quite interchangeable but less specific and slotted into a particular moment in Vlad's life than the books set after Certain Unpleasantnesses.

Specifically, this book is about a debt. A guy died owing Vlad 800 gold. That's a fair bit of money; he doesn't want to let it go. So he pokes around to see if there's some way he can collect. And things get complicated, as they do in caper novels - there were secret plots of various people trying to do various things, and they are not particularly happy at this short whiskered dude poking his nose in and asking questions.

Luckily, Vlad is the series hero - no, let me be less arch: luckily, he is smart and skilled and, let's not forget, a working assassin, who also has a very impressive collection of high-powered friends and allies, some of whom have their own reasons for wanting to help out in this particular case.

Brust is a smooth, engaging writer at all times, and the Vlad books - particularly the ones in Vlad's voice, including this one - give him space to engage in great tough-guy turns of phrase and narration. The series started out as fantasy crime novels, and has wandered a lot since then, but this one comes back to that initial concept, and is deeply enjoyable both as fantasy and as crime.

Let me give you a quick quote to give you a sense of the writing, from p.7:

The next morning, I told Kragar to find out what he could about the family, which is one of the things Kragar is good at. Some of the other things he's good at are reminding me of unpleasant things I've agreed to do, unintentionally sneaking up on me, and being irritating.

If you find that amusing, you'll probably like this series.

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

Clyde by Jim Benton

I'm pretty sure I'm four to five times the expected age of a reader of this book, but, you know what: I don't care.

Jim Benton is funny, his characters are sarcastic and witty in hugely amusing ways, his stories take fun random zips and turns, and his cartooning is energetic and lively. So, yeah, he seems to have mostly done books for middle-graders, and I guess that means, as I poke through his books, I might be reading more MG graphic novels than I might have expected. Oh, horrors.

I came to Benton's long-form comics through his single-panel cartoons. As far as I've seen, he has two books of those published: Dog Butts and Love. And Stuff Like That. And Cats. and Man, I Hate Cursive. (Is this a good point to mention that I'm sure he has enough single-panel cartoons for another book? Maybe more than one?)

This one is clearly for younger readers, though - it even has a message, though Benton doesn't exactly play it straight. But it's a Benton book, full of quirky Benton characters with great dialogue and observations, arranged into a plot that mostly makes sense in its quirky way.

Clyde is a bear: a young one. He feels stifled growing up in Cubville, a nice town where everyone is nice. He knows he's really a bad guy, and wants to go somewhere where he can be as bad as he wants to be: the big, nasty town of Grizzly City.

We all know how that story will go: through a series of events, Clyde will learn not to be "a bad guy," will care about other people (maybe starting with his grandmother the turtle, who he throws into a pond just before leaving Cubville), and will become nicer and find some real friends.

He doesn't really do any of that, exactly: he does go back to Cubville, he does help people (resentfully, complaining), but doesn't seem to like other people any better or get any nicer. Which is even better, because people don't actually change like that.

Clyde changes, as much as he changes, which he would tell you is not at all, because he meets a butterfly who beats him up. But she's nice, actually: the kind of Pollyanna-ish character you'd expect in a book like this, the Jiminy Cricket figure. (Except Jiminy wouldn't tell a story starting "I was doing all the caterpillar stuff...eating other people's leaves...stealing cars...the usual.")

So they two of them rush back to Cubville to save Clyde's grandmother (the turtle, remember) from "fish jail." Benton's work is full of funny asides and details like that; there's something funny on every page, as he sort-of follows the outline of the standard plot you'd expect from the setup.

This is obviously meant to be a book for reluctant readers, especially boys, but it's also just a funny, semi-subversion of a standard kids-book trope. If you like funny, and you don't mind books for kids and their lessons (positive or negative; Benton goes both ways), this is excellent.