Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Reading Into the Past: Week of 7/29

I've been slacking off on new posts here, but I hope to remedy that. So I'll start doing "Reading Into the Past" yet again...and this week, I rolled a lucky 13, so these are the books I was reading this time of year back in 1994:
  • Lawrence Block, The Girl With the Long Green Heart (7/22)
    We start in the middle of a batch of mysteries (I'd read Caleb Carr's The Alienist and books by Jim Thompson and Robert B. Parker in the days immediately preceding), with a minor early Larry Block novel. In those days, Carroll & Graf was in the middle of a Block revival -- they published six or eight of his very early '60s books as slim mass-market paperbacks (which is exactly what those books originally were, and thus was very appropriate). And I grabbed them all as soon as I found them and read them quickly. Block was writing his way out of the sex-book industry at that point, and his standalone thrillers (like Long Green Heart) were very Jim Thompson-inspired, with femmes fatale all over the place. As you can guess from the title, Girl With the Long Green Heart was very much in that vein. I don't remember a whole lot of any of those books specifically, but they were all fun to read, and Block's always a keeper. (And I see that Hard Case Crime has recently brought this book back into print again -- can't keep a good noir down, I guess.)
  • Terry Goodkind, Wizard's First Rule (7/23)
    What I remember most about this book -- besides that S&M section that everyone still talks about -- is that I was reading it in the middle of a huge heat wave. It was so hot that I just holed up in the bedroom (the only place in my then-apartment with air conditioning) for a day or so and read straight through it. I won't say it's my very favorite epic fantasy series, but it kept me reading, and I didn't want to leave it to go do anything else in the hot parts of the apartment.
  • Terry Pratchett, Soul Music (7/24)
    I think I was still catching up on the Discworld books at this point -- and I know that his publisher certainly was behind -- which may be why I didn't like Soul Music all that much at the time. It was enjoyable, but I got the feeling that it was made up primarily of in-jokes and references rather than a plot of its own. Though I should admit that it's a book I should re-read one of these days, because I expect I'll catch more of the references this time around. (I suspect I tried to read it more-or-less straight, which you can't do.)
  • Marcia Muller, Till the Butchers Cut Him Down (7/25)
    I guess the weekend was over, so I got back into pleasure reading -- and I was in the middle of a big stack of mysteries right then. This was the then-new book in the Sharon McCone series, which I liked a lot then (though I think it floundered a bit under the weight of its own backstory in the later '90s, and so I dropped it). This is the book where Sharon sets up her own detective agency, so, in hindsight, this is the beginning of the ever-increasing cute supporting cast (which is what eventually drove me away). I don't require that PI viewpoint characters be completely aloof loners, but I'd prefer if their books aren't entirely about inter-personal relationships with their interns, spouses, and sisters. Don't start the series here -- get the first book, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, and work forward from there. McCone isn't quite as tough as Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone or Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, but she plays in the same league, and she was actually there first.
  • Peter Rabe, Kill the Boss GoodBye (7/25)
    I don't remember this book at all; according to the reviewers on Amazon, it's a slim crime novel about the (psychiatric) downfall of a gambling boss. From the descriptions, I can see why I was interested in it -- it reminds me a bit of J.G. Ballard writing with Jim Thompson's pen -- but I do have to admit, again, that I can't actually remember it, and I didn't keep it, so I probably didn't like it all that much.
  • Robert B. Parker, Paper Doll (7/26)
    The then-new Spencer novel. Not the place to begin by any means; the first book in the series is The Godwulf Manuscript, and anyone who reads PI novels more than slightly should probably read the first half-dozen or so of the Spencer books at least. (This one, on the other hand, is #20, so it's for people who've made it all the way up, one book at a time, and are still interested.) Again, I don't have much of a memory of any specific Spencer book at this point; Parker has written more than thirty, and I think I've read them all.
  • Michael Z. Lewin, Ask the Right Question (7/26)
    The Lewin book I can remember is Called By a Panther, and, even there, it's mostly just that I can put the title together with his name. But I did enjoy reading his books in the early '90s, and he had a decent detective (Albert Samson) in a different location (Indianapolis). I haven't seen anything from him in a while, which means either I haven't been paying attention, or he was unlucky to be part of the big chunk of writers who can publish a few novels, but not sustain a career much longer than a decade.
  • Arthur Lyons, Dead Ringer (7/27)
    Yet another PI series I used to read, and haven't seen in a while; Lyon's detective is Jacob Asch, and I think he was based in LA. Actually, it might have died even before I started reading it, since it looks like it was mostly an '80s series. No idea what this one was, specifically.
  • Vonda N. McIntyre, Star Wars: The Crystal Star (7/28)
    One of the middle-rank Star Wars books of the Bantam era; not as good as Barbara Hambly's Children of the Jedi, but it wasn't The Courtship of Princess Leia, either. As I remember, the Solo twins are kidnapped by nefarious sorts (into a black hole or something like that), and they get some little-kid personalities that I don't think had anything to do with their later characterization. (Not to say that their characterization in the YA books is all that similar to "The New Jedi Order," of course.) This is the era of Star Wars books I preferred: plots were resolved in one book, and the villains were always defeated. That's the way I like my escapism...
  • Jim Thompson, Heed the Thunder (7/28)
    This was later in Vintage Crime/Black Lizard's reprinting of all of Thompson's books, so they'd run past his obvious classics and well-known books long ago at this point, and were down to the obscurities and the oddballs. Heed the Thunder was Thompson's second novel, a noirish historical set just before World War I in a small Nebraska town. Don't read this instead of The Killer Inside Me, but it's decent Thompson for those who have already read the obvious books.
  • Timothy Zahn, Conquerors' Heritage (7/30)
    Second in an inventive SF trilogy that I don't think I've seen anyone ever talk about: the first book, Conquerors' Pride, was from the POV of humans, whose star-faring society is attacked, suddenly and viciously, by previously unknown aliens. This book covers many of the same events from the alien's point of view -- and, to them, it was the humans who attacked without warning. (The third book, in which both sides make peace, is OK, but not quite as good as the set-up.)
A typically busy reading week back then; I need to remind myself that I didn't have the Internet (or kids) in those days...but I was also reading about three times as many magazines as I am now, too. What a slacker I've become!

Hugo Voting Deadline Is Tonight

For those of you who are members of the Worldcon this year -- I'm not, and wasn't even before the unpleasantness -- your deadline to vote for the Hugo Awards is tonight at midnight, Pacific Standard Time. (That's what the website says; they may mean Pacific Daylight Time.)

As I type this, you've got about nine hours. If you're eligible to vote, but don't vote, I have to tell you that you completely forfeit any right to complain about the winners, or any other aspect of the Hugo Awards ceremony, or the Worldcon in general. I'm sorry, but there it is: you have to vote now to complain afterwards.

The online voting form is here; if you haven't voted yet, please use it.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

What I'm Up To

My apologies if a flood of Antick Musings posts turned up in your feedreader over the weekend; Amazon decided that I was worthy to affiliate with them, so I spent some time sticking in links for the books I've read this month. (I thought doing it over the weekend would also be the least disruptive.)

I don't intend to go back and put in links to every last thing I ever read over the past two years, for that way lies madness. However, I am checking my stats every day, and things that have gotten a hit are getting links added (because, who knows, maybe lightning will hit twice or something). In the process, I'm also adding bookshots, where I can, to posts that didn't have them, because that makes it feel more like I'm adding useful content and less like I'm book-busking.

Oh, and here's how I hope the affiliate-linky-thing will work: if you're the kind of person who buys a book from Amazon as soon as you decide you want it, and it's my review that makes you say, "Damn, that sounds cool," I hope you'll use my link. Otherwise, either consider it just a visual element or use it to see the opinions of other people (all of them, of course, much less intelligent, witty, and well-read than I am) on that same book.

To Be in ComicMix In the Summertime

My posts there this weekend:
And one review:
The Saga of the Bloody Benders by Rick Geary

Iztkoff Is Invincible!

It's not officially an "Across the Universe" column, but the Itzkoff had a related review in this weekend's New York Times Book Review: he covered Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible. (My ComicMix review. Amazon shill link.)

I don't particularly disagree with him this time, or think he's said anything notably dumb, so I'll just note the existence of this review, wonder if if foreshadows a new, more useful Itzkoff, and move on.

How to Keep Dinosaurs by Robert Mash

I have a soft spot for fake non-fiction books, from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland through the wonderful Dragons: The Modern Infestation by Pamela Wharton Blanpied to the kind of Star Wars books with diagrams about how a lightsaber "really" works. So this book was right up my alley, and I grabbed it as soon as I saw it (a year ago at Lunacon, from the table of the mighty Michael Walsh, lord of Old Earth Books).

The concept is simple and wonderful: Dinosaurs (and related saurians) can make good pets in the modern world, but owners need to choose wisely. The best-known and most popular dinosaurs -- the T. Rexes and Diplodocuses of this world -- are really not suitable to the average suburban house.

Mash's excellent advice is that a first-time dinosaur owner start with a less-difficult species such as Compsognathus or Euparkeria. After succeeding on that level, the adventurous dino-keeper can move up to a Heterodontosaurus, or a Dsungaripterus (a top pterosaur recommendation), or even an Ornithomimus (particularly good for riding). How to Keep Dinosaurs is suitable for trainers at any level, from rank first-timers to safari park owners trying to decide if they're ready to step up to the mighty Brachiosaurus.

The book is divided into eight chapters listing dinosaurs of various types (for beginners, flying pets, security work, eggs and meat, hide and feather, and so on), along with chapters on general dino-raising tips, sicknesses of dinosaurs and their cures, classification charts, and the essential toolkit for dealing with dinos. Particularly welcome in this updated and expanded edition (the first since the 1983 original) are the large photographic illustrations, showing various saurians in their natural state or as adapted to the human world -- I'm particularly fond of the fierce Ornitholestes in his police vest.

Each dinosaur's entry includes a handy set of icons describing its needs and potential problems (some of those icons encode such useful information as "herbivore," "omnivore," "will eat other pets," "likes children," "likes children to eat," "worryingly smart," "worryingly stupid," and "worryingly flatulent"), size and weight comparisons, and detailed notes on their uses, strengths and drawbacks. Additionally, each dino has notes on feeding, housing, breeding and availability.

Quite simply, anyone who hopes to raise or keep a dinosaur needs this book. And even those of us who prefer to keep dinos out of our own homes will find it thoroughly amusing and enlightening. I recommend this book most highly.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Incoming Books, Week of 7/28

This is the week of difficult choices, since The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories by Connie Willis (in a nice review-able ARC from Subterranean) arrived on Wednesday and a little thing called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows showed up on Thursday (complete with mailman noting its existence and requiring a signature).

On the one hand, I think I've already read all of the stories in Marble Arch at least once. (But it is Connie Willis.) On the other hand, half of the free world has already read Deathly Hallows, so I need to keep up. (But I'm not the world's biggest Rowling fan, and I expect to be disappointed by the ending.)

I suspect I'll finish Deathly first, but I'm reading them simultaneously. (Along with the usual pile of other things.)

And the new stuff in the "other things" category includes:
  • Loserpalooza, the new "Get Fuzzy" treasury by Darby Conley
  • Clubbing, one of the Minx launch titles, written by Andi Watson (whom, so far, I will follow anywhere)
  • Re-Gifters, another Minx book from the creative team behind the swell My Faith in Frankie
  • "Shenanigans," a graphic novel by two people I'm not familiar with, which tries to be a Billy Wilder comedy in comics form, and which also was half price
  • Screw Heaven, When I Die I'm Going to Mars, a big compendium of Shannon "Too Much Coffee Man" Wheeler's comics -- I've never read his stuff before, in part because I don't drink coffee, but with a last name like that, he has to be great
  • Spent by Joe Matt, of course
  • and the seventh volume of Powers, even though a quick glance shows that the first few pages take place entirely among monkeys
And that's probably what I'll be reading over the next week or two.

Update, several hours later: Well, I wrote that and headed out the door with the boys to the library...and found two packages with review copies on my doorstep. So I might be reading some other stuff as well in the next couple of weeks. (And if I start getting substantial numbers of review copies, I'll probably be too embarrassed to list them all, so "incoming books" may dwindle or disappear.)

Quote of the Week

"Those whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes mad."
- Euripides

Friday, July 27, 2007

In the Wake of Battle: The Civil War Images of Matthew Brady by George Sullivan

Another book I've had lying around for approximately forever; if I stay unemployed long enough, I might actually read my way down to a clean desk. (Now that's a horrible thought, on both sides.)

This is a collection of photographs taken by various photographers during the Civil War that all ended up in the files of Matthew Brady. Brady apparently didn't do any major photography himself, due to eye troubles, but he hired teams of photographers and took the credit for their work.

Everything is very posed, due to the technological limitations of the time, and the close-up had not yet been invented. I was occasionally impressed by how these pictures are of a world two lifetimes removed from us (if someone was born when the Civil War started, lived to age 75, and died, a person born on the first fella's death-day would now be 71), but, really, this is just a lot of sepia-toned shots of people in uniform in the distance and various fortifications.

There are people for whom a book like this will be a joy forever, but I'm not one of them; it was vaguely interesting, but now I'm done with it and the pile is slightly lower. But if you're someone who would like a fat book of Civil War photos, this one is out there, and it's pretty good at what it does.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Work and Other Sins by Charlie LeDuff

As you can probably see from the bookshot, the subtitle of this book is "Life in New York City and Thereabouts" -- and I can't resist a book that uses words like "thereabouts."

Work and Other Sins is a collection of reportage by a New York Times reporter...but I'm not sure how this guy ever got a job on the Times, since his instincts and tastes clearly run towards the working-class, the blue-collar, and the dirty-handed. His stories, in tone, subject, and style, are the opposite of everyone's mental image of the high-toned, snooty Times. He writes a bit like his generation's version of Pete Hamill or Jimmy Breslin, except you never get the sense that he's straining for poetic effect, as those two sometimes do. LeDuff just tells the stories that he finds.

This book collects a large number of pieces written for the Times (one spiked, and first appearing here) from 1996 through 2002. They mostly focus on working-class people: on their jobs (lots of firefighters and bartenders, but also florists, gravediggers, and commercial fishermen), and their lives in the bar, at the racetrack, and sometimes at home. I wouldn't say that LeDuff is writing about "low-lifes," exactly -- these people have their own pride, and a sense of their own lives, and LeDuff respects and understand them -- but I bet most Times reader wouldn't hesitate a second before considering them such. This book contains a lot of good reportage about the kind of New Yorkers that Manhattanites mostly think are fit only to get tipped at Christmas, if that.

The years covered in this book include 2001 and 2002, which, of course, means 9/11 casts its shadow over some parts. LeDuff did some strong reporting both at the WTC site and in a longer-term series about a firefighter's widow -- as I said, he sympathizes with working men, so he's a good choice to report on how 9/11 affected New York.

LeDuff has a lean, no-nonsense style; he's trying to report what's happening, not call a lot of attention to himself. (There's a strain of look-I'm-a-Hemingwayesque-real-man in there once in a while, but not often.) His voice is lower-class middle-America, which makes him closer to the people he's reporting on and gives their stories the authenticity of felt experience rather than the tawdry glamor of slumming. He's a good reporter of stories about people, period.

(I see from the short bio in the book that he's now with the Times's LA bureau, which is not what I'd expect...though, from searching on his name on the Times site, I find that he was doing a series of stories across America called "American Album" through last November.)

I suspect I like reportage, and New York City stories, much more than the people who read my blog. OK, that's fair. But LeDuff is really good at what he does, so, if you have any interest at all in this stuff, he's a great guy to try.

One last thing: I've finally broken down and I'm trying to set up an Amazon affiliate thingy for Antick Musings. (We'll see if they accept me.) I've never made a penny out of this site, but, with things as they are now, I'm hoping it can at least help to pay for the books I ramble on about. (I don't intend to add advertising any time soon; I don't think this blog has enough traffic to make that worthwhile, and I don't like the look of Google AdSense ads, either.) So, if the books I write about intrigue you, now you could buy them directly through a link. (Or just pop over to Amazon to see what other people think -- I'm not going to change what I say about books to get a nickel or two.)

Links to Links -- what the Internet is for!

More of my link-lists at ComicMix:
And my biggest, most organized, most comprehensive linkdump ever...
(Somehow, along the way, I forget to make a Zap Rowsdower joke. Oops.)

And one review:

That's what I've been doing; what about you folks?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Thrilling Comic Book Cover Art of Alex Schomburg, compiled by J. David Spurlock

I have no memory of buying this, and it was published in 2004, so it's probably been stuck in the middle of a pile for quite some time. But I finally got to it.

There's minimal text: just an introduction by Spurlock with the thumbnail version of Schomburg's life and career, and captions for each cover. The covers appear to have been reproduced from comics, but the images are nearly always clean, crisp, and color-corrected. (This book doesn't make the error, common to some modern designers, of treating old art as a yellowed, textured design element, but instead thinks of it as art and tries to reproduce it as well as possible.)

From Spurlock's introduction, I learn that Schomburg painted 199 comics covers for Timely from 1939 to 1949, and 296 for Standard over the same period. This book reproduces a hundred and two of those covers, in no obvious order. (It also only contains a handful of covers from 1940 and otherwise concentrates entirely on works from 1945-1948 -- with a few stray 1944 or 1949 pieces -- for no stated reason.) It's really a book for people who would prefer to look at pictures rather than read.

Those pictures, though, are in large part not to my taste. I did like some of the airbrushed work (under the pen-name Xela) of the later years, which prefigures Schomburg's later SF book-cover work. But the bulk of the comics covers are just flat, muddy color over decent pencils, and are very much of their time. The earlier covers also tend to be crowded and muddled, while the later works show much better composition and use of negative space. It's hard to put my finger on what makes Schomburg's "Black Terror" covers bland and something of a similar vintage (say, by Frank R. Paul) more interesting, but I think part of it is that the more SFnal and fantastic Schomburg's work gets (with jungle girls and alien spaceships), the better I like it. His crime-fighters and super-heroes are derivative and uninspiring, but his female heroes are specific, original, and exciting.

(I suspect Spurlock agrees with me, since he generally uses the pictures I think of as better as full-pages and uses the lesser works in a smaller size.)

Anyway, some of this stuff is good (to my eye) and some is not so good. The book will not be of much use to scholars, since there's hardly any text, but it does reproduce the art nice and large on good paper without any design silliness. I do wish the covers had been organized, because I kept flipping backwards and forwards to look at them in sequence. But, all in all, it is a good thing.

Naked Self-Promotion Tries To Put On A Speedo

I've been tagged by Ariel to continue this Blogging Tips Meme (which, honestly, seems more like a chain letter, with its emphasis on creating lots of links).

-Start Copy-

It's very simple. When this is passed on to you, copy the whole thing, skim the list and put a * star beside those that you like. (Check out especially the * starred ones.)

Add the next number (1. 2. 3. 4. 5., etc.) and write your own blogging tip for other bloggers. Try to make your tip general.

After that, tag 10 other people. Link love some friends!

Just think- if 10 people start this, the 10 people pass it onto another 10 people, you have 100 links already!

1. Look, read, and learn. ****


2. Be, EXCELLENT to each other. ******

3. Don't let money change ya! ***

4. Always reply to your comments. ****

5. Link liberally -- it keeps you and your friends afloat in the Sea of Technorati. ***

6. Don't give up - persistence is fertile. **

7. Give link credit where credit is due.**

8. Follow your own path. Do anything you want to, it's your blog. *

9. Don't put off until tomorrow what you can blog today. Backlogs are the primary cause of Bloggers' Block.

10. Self-promotion is only good in small doses. (Deliberately creating a "meme" to get your URL spammed across the net is a large dose.)

-End Copy-

I'm not tagging anyone, since we've hit #10 already. (And I doubt I would have anyway.)

Look, kiddies: none of us are going to get rich or famous from blogging (not matter how much Neonscent desperately wants to be); there are only going to be a very few people like that, and they're mostly already in place. And this kind of marketing-drone happy-speak is death to honest discussions, which is what blogs are supposed to be about.

So, Neonscent, my advice to you is to find something to blog about, instead of just tossing your naked ambition up there for the world to uneasily gawk at.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Reviewing The Mail: 7/24

Even at the rate I'm going, there's no way I can read everything I have -- and certainly not in a timely way. So, assuming I keep getting things in the mail, I'm going to point out some items of particular interest more-or-less as I get them.

For this first installment, these books have been sitting around for a couple of weeks, for example, and I've been poking through them, but I don't want to wait to write about them.

So this will be "Reviewing the Mail" -- a quick overview of the good and interesting stuff that I've gotten recently. The title is from Chuck Klosterman's description of what a rock critic really does.

Ross Macdonald, The Way Some People Die, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, July 2007, $12.95

Ross Macdonald's "Lew Archer" novels are the third, and least lauded, leg of the modern detective fiction stool, along with the better-known Hammett and Chandler. Macdonald took the expansive, socially engaged plots of Chandler but pulled back from Chandler's "soiled knight" hero to a more remote, detached detective in Lew Archer. Nearly all of the novels in this series are great; The Underground Man, his masterpiece, is one of the five or so best detective novels ever written. Underground Man, however, was already in print as a stylist trade paperback from Vintage -- The Way Some People Die, on the other hand, has been out of print for the past ten years.

Vintage sent me their new edition of The Way Some People Dies, the third Lew Archer novel, which was originally published in 1951. The design sense is impeccable, as always with Vintage -- though I suppose I could complain that they always change the design for a series in the middle. (I have ten or so Macdonald books from Vintage, with a very different look -- and Vintage's run of Jim Thompson also changed gears five or six times before it was done.) People like me do want the books to look like they belong next to each other on the shelf. But that's the only thing I could complain about.

The first two Lew Archer books were good, but in The Way Some People Die everything Macdonald was trying to do crystallized, and he seized control of his two great locations: the great American dreamland of California and the often-unbridgeable spaces between people. He's essential reading for anyone who likes serious mystery novels, and this is a perfect place to start.

Sheila Williams, editor, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine: 30th Anniversary Anthology, Tachyon Publications, 2007, $14.95

I don't think I need say much about this book, which collects some of the best stories from the first thirty years of a great science fiction magazine. Maybe just listing a few of the titles will do the job for me: John Varley's "Air Raid." Octavia E. Butler's "Speech Sounds." Bruce Sterling's "Dinner in Audoghast." Kelly Link's "Flying Lessons." Charles Stross's "Lobsters." Stephen Baxter's "The Children of Time."

Not impressed? OK -- you're hard to please. But the other stories in this book are by Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov, Kim Stanley Robinson, Connie Willis, Jonathan Lethem, Mike Resnick, Ursula K. Le Guin, James Patrick Kelly, Michael Swanwick, Lucius Shepard, and Robert Reed. I dare to you find an anthology of stories from the same venue, covering the past thirty years, as strong as that.

If you already have a long shelf of Year's Best anthologies and single-author collections, you might just have everything in this book already. For the rest of you, this is an easy way to get a lot of good stuff all in one place.

Brian Ruckley, Winterbirth, Orbit, September 2007, $14.99

I'm currently on a hiatus from beginning new multi-volume series of big fat secondary world fantasy novels, but this one looks pretty impressive, so I should note it. Winterbirth is the first novel from Scots author Brian Ruckley, and the big launch title for Orbit US, a major new SF/Fantasy imprint from the same people who created the exceptionally successful Orbit line in the UK.

It looks dark, bloody, and pseudo-Scottish, and the series title has "Trilogy" built right into it, so there's very little chance of serious multi-book bloat. I'd say this is for fans of George R.R. Martin, Steven Erikson, and David Gemmell. Any UK folks out there already read it, and willing to give an opinion?

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Best of Ray Bradbury: The Graphic Novel by hordes of people

The Best of Ray Bradbury: The Graphic Novel is a collection of some of the many Bradbury story adaptations from "The Ray Bradbury Chronicles," a series of slim trade paperbacks from Bantam in the early '90s, and "Ray Bradbury Comics," which subsequently came out from Topps Comics. Both series were packaged by (and are copyright in the name of) Byron Preiss Visual Publications, and this book was published some years later by ibooks, another arm of the then-sprawling Byron Preiss empire. The copyright page says it was edited by Howard Zimmerman, and it contains adaptations of twelve Bradbury stories by a very varied (but very respectable) line-up of names. Bradbury contributes a short foreword to each story, about when and how the story was written.

I seem to be alone in this among those who've reviewed this book, but I didn't like it much. Bradbury has a very wordy style which is hard to translate into comics -- or, rather, often translates into comics as lots and lots of captions with straight Bradbury prose. I found the result was generally too wordy to flow well as a comics story, which meant these felt like abridged Bradbury tales with very extensive illustrations.

Some of the stories work better than others; I liked Dave Gibbons's take on "Come Into My Cellar" and Daniel Torres's "Night Meeting," mostly because those stories weren't overwhelmed by the narration. And the art is fine, and varied, in all of the stories. But I'm afraid I really didn't see the point in all this in the first place -- prose short stories and comics scripts aren't the same thing, so there's no reason to believe one would be generally useful as the other.

The Book Topic Every Blogger Is Required to Post About This Week

Yes, I've read the first six Harry Potter books. Yes, I intend to read Deathly Hallows. No, I don't have a copy yet.

But one earmarked for me is on its way from Canada -- it was last sighted at 4:12 PM on Saturday in Mississauga, Ontario (where I hope it said hello to Rob Sawyer on its way), though, oddly, the tracking software thinks it will take until August 13th to reach New Jersey. (Especially odd, since air freight usually goes through Newark Airport and New Jersey is well supplied with interstates and warehouses for shipments coming by truck.)

Why Canada? Well, my personal copies of the first six are all Canadian, to have the original British text, and so I want to keep them matching. (Even though the British/Canadian covers have been steadily getting worse.) And, with as many books to read as I have, there's no way I was going to pay for super-deluxe speedy shipping. So I'll get it one of these days, and read it then.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Plot by Will Eisner

Will Eisner was a giant among comics creators, and this is a project he cared deeply about, worked intermittently on, and completed a mere month before he died in early 2005. Unfortunately, it wasn't a great idea to begin with, and it doesn't work all that well as comics.

The Plot is the history of a book, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a hateful work of propaganda put together by reactionary Russians over a century ago to convince the Tsar of the existence of an international Jewish conspiracy to rule the world. The conspiracy, of course, doesn't and never did exist, and the Protocols was itself plagiarized from an earlier polemic against Napoleon III.

Eisner dramatizes the creation of the Protocols, and then spends most of the book in quick vignettes of various people, generation after generation, again and again proving that the Protocols is a plagiarized fake. This grows tedious -- nearly as tedious as the dozen or so pages that simply exist to show the ways the Protocols plagiarized Maurice Joly's The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu.

There are essentially two problems: 1) the story as Eisner has assembled it is not terribly interesting, and is very repetitive. 2) It's talky and research-driven and doesn't work as comics. I'm not saying an interesting book couldn't be written about the history of the Protocols -- it probably could -- but The Plot, unfortunately, isn't that book. Eisner doesn't delve into the reasons why anti-Semites exist, or why people keep wanting to believe what the Protocols say is true -- his characters keep thinking that this time, once the Protocols is seriously debunked, everything will be fine.

This is just for Eisner completists, I think, and possibly for scholars of certain unsavory bits of literary history.

Note 1: This is essentially the last of the comics collections I had piled up to be read, so, from this point, I'll be reading through the other stuff on that pile, which is very various and has been lying around for quite some time. I doubt anyone actually cares.

Note 2: I'm retiring the "Just Read" tag for books I've read; it's redundant and possibly confusing. (My brother told me that he always reads them as an imperative rather than a statement of fact -- and, much of the time, I'm often not urging people to read these books.) So it'll just be boring ol' title and author from now on.

Reading Into the Past: Week of 7/22

I haven't done one of these in a while, so here's the scoop: I've been keeping a record of the books I've read since the end of 1990, so, once a week (ostensibly) I randomly pick a past year in that span and list the books I was reading the same week that year. With luck, I can actually remember what those books were. This week, the magic number is eight, so we're gonna read like it's 1999:
  • Clifford Stoll, High Tech Heretic (7/15)
    I think Stoll was against the Internet, so something to that effect -- that was what made him a "heretic." After a quick Google, I see that he was specifically against computers and the Internet in schools -- that he thought spending lots of money to have faster computers and connections (money that needs to be spent again every three years or so) for kids in school could be much better spent elsewhere. Hey, whad'ya know: I agree with him there.
  • Mike Ashley, editor, The Mammoth Book of Comic Fantasy II (7/15)
    It was mammoth, it was comic, it was fantasy -- some large number of stories, nearly all reprint (and a surprising number of them from the public domain) all shoved into one set of covers. I don't remember it well, but I sold quite a lot of them for several years.
  • Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon, Owlknight (7/18)
    The hero had stopped being quite so whiny by the third book in the trilogy -- in the first book, this reader kept wishing someone would drown him in the river, like an unwanted kitten -- but Valdemar was a mass of wish-fulfillment fantasy by this point, so I can't claim it was great literature. But I liked reading all of those books, and I intermittently wish Lackey would write more.
  • Neil Gaiman, Sandman: The Dream Hunters (7/19)
    I read the novella or so of text, without the Yoshitaka Amano illustrations that eventually accompanied it. And I don't remember much about it, now -- I suspect it was a quiet, constrained story, since most of the late Sandman stuff was, but that's just a guess.
  • James Stoddard, The False House (7/20)
    Sequel to The High House, a great first fantasy novel about a house that contains multitudes of fantasy worlds within itself. False was a bit like High warmed up the next day: it was pleasant, and quite fun, but clearly secondhand. I don't think he's published any other novels since, so maybe he didn't have anything else novelistic to say. But, still, if you haven't read The High House, try to track it down -- it's a bit like Gormenghast as written by Michael Moorcock.
  • Archie Goodwin and Walter Simonson, Manhunter: The Special Edition (7/22)
    The Goodwin-Simonson "Manhunter" serial from 1973-74, with a new (at the time) dialogue-less story plotted by the two before Goodwin's unexpected death. It's a thin trade paperback with an unappealing all-gold cover, and I only moderately enjoyed the stories. I mostly got this because I was a big Simonson fan from his days on Thor, honestly.
  • Peter Bagge, Buddy's Got Three Moms! (7/22)
    I didn't think the Buddy Bradley stories had the same energy and verve once he moved back to New Jersey...but, on the other hand, Hate featured a major comics character bouncing around my home turf, so that was kinda cool. And Bagge must have felt similarly, since he ended Hate not too long after this; there was only one more collection. I haven't read any of Hate in a while, but I bet it reads like a serious '90s time capsule now.
A fairly typical week, with some work reading (including one novel I suppressed here because I didn't finish it) and a small pile of comics stuff.

More Fun at ComicMix

My most recent emanations:
Watch for one last, insanely long collection of Harry Potter links tomorrow, plus the usual stuff.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Just Read: Justice, Vol. 1 by Krueger, Ross & Braithwaite

OK, help me out here, folks -- I'm not as up-to-date on long-underwear dudes as I could be. Is the "bunch of supervillains hatch Really Kewl, counterintuitive plot and capture and/or put in jeopardy every member of Super Hero Team" plot as tired and lame as I suspect it is?

(If it's somehow new and exciting, I'll take back all of the snarky comments I'm going to make here.)

This first collection of Justice collects the first third of a twelve-issue series, and thus is a twenty-dollar hardcover that's all set-up. There's not even any middle, let alone an ending. And the plot is, well, that a bunch of supervillains decide to both save and take over the world, at the same time, by combining forces, defeating the good guys (though not quickly killing them, which villains never do because they are secretly privy to the sales figures and so know enough not to kill the golden goose), and doing amazing world-dominating good deeds.

Presumably, the issue after the ones collected here will feature the writer's favorite member of the team (for Grant Morrison, the other time I saw this plot done, that was Batman; I suspect it will be Superman for Krueger and Ross) showing how Wicked Awesome he is and breaking free so that he can go around and free all of his teammates for the big battle at the end. Alternatively, either the Spectre or Dr. Fate could just waltz in and set everything right by waving their hands, but I don't expect that. We'll also see that the villains don't have anyone's good fortune at heart, and end with some sort of sermon that superheroes have to let the world go on as it is, because, gosh darn it, that's the way things are, and so bad things will continue to happen.

Why are people so stupid? Superhero comics are an inherently unstable medium -- they only make sense as long as you don't call too much attention to the underlying inconsistencies. Yes, a world with superheroes would quickly diverge from real history. Yes, that will never happen in a mass-published comics universe. So stop picking at that scab, already. Either do a full-blown alternate universe story or leave those plot points entirely alone, because you're not convincing anyone with the Heisenberg version of the story (half-alive and half-dead).

Oh, and I should also admit here that I got this book free at BookExpo, so complaining about it is possibly unmannerly. My apologies to the fine folks at DC if this is so.

Um, one last thing; I forgot the credits. The story is by (Jim) Krueger and (Alex) Ross, with script by Krueger and paintings by Ross over (Doug) Braithwaite's pencils. It is a sign of how little I understand how art works that I'm not sure why painting over someone else's pencils saves time or is helpful. (Though it clearly does, and is.)

Just Read: Nexus Archives, Volume One by Mike Baron & Steve Rude

Folk are still re-publishing my favorite comics of the '80s, so I'm still re-reading them. (Though I'm waiting for my big Ambush Bug collections -- DC, are you out there? Two fat trade paperbacks, in color, would hit the spot.)

This book, the first of several (I think five volumes are out already, and another one or two solicited), collects the three-issue first series of Nexus and the first four issues of the much longer-running (like, ninety more issues longer) second, color series.

It is both swell and cool, but also engenders a sense of wonder that ourselves and the world was ever that young. (Or maybe it only does that to me.) The stories detail the first appearance and origin of Horatio Hellpop, known as Nexus, the fusion-powered assassin of mass murderers in the star-spanning multi-racial civilization of the 26th century. Most of the major supporting cast -- Sundra Peale, Dave, Judah the Hammer, Ursula X.X. Imada, Tyrone -- is introduced as well, and the general philosophical outlines of the series (to speak very generally: when is violence, especially murder, justifiable?) are outlined. The actual source of Nexus's powers is still unknown as this book ends, but it's fascinating to see how much of the later developments in the series were implied by the very beginnings of the story.

Baron's stories got somewhat better -- and he didn't hit us over the head with deep, serious quotes every other page once he settled in -- but his work was pretty darn good even here. Rude also got a lot better as an artist, but he was solidly professionally and occasionally brilliant even back then.

It's an expensive book, and I suspect it will only sell to people, like me, who already have (or had) all of the old issues. But it's quite swell, and I don't care who knows that I like it.

Friday, July 20, 2007

ComicMix Round-Up

Bloglines has been a bit irregular lately (though it's spewed out nearly three thousand articles at me so far today, so the LiveJournal problem may finally have been fixed...right after I set up a work-around earlier in the week, of course), so I'm not counting on it to say what's up on ComicMix.

So I may have pointed to some of these things before; my apologies, if so. But this is what's new from me in the last twenty-four hours or so. First, my usual link-lists:
(A lot more of those link-lists are in process, by the way -- which means I've written them, and stuck them into the ComicsMix queue, and they'll emerge when it's time.)

Then, a report on an art museum's exhibition of comics-related stuff:
Super Hero Comics and Art

And one graphic novel review:
The Architect

Quote of the Week

"There are in fact two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance."
- Hippocrates

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Just Read: 300 by Frank Miller

There's been so much said about this book over the past ten years that I don't know what I could add at this point.

It's not quite as homoerotic as I expected, I guess, but it's still awfully damn homoerotic. I'm not the kind to make armchair psychological evaluations of people I don't know, but...Frank may be seeking something he wants to deny himself.

And, of course, at some point in the '90s, Miller turned into a full-on parody of himself, without anyone noticing it.

Otherwise...eh. It's very nice-looking, but the narration is terribly overwrought and I don't particularly want to be in the head of a bunch of Spartans (particularly Miller's kind of Spartans) for more than a minute or two at a time. It's not a book I expect to ever re-read, and I don't intend to keep it.

How Not to Get a Classic Published

It's the silly season, as they say in the UK, and that very silly plan, "let's type up some old novel and submit it to a bunch of publishers," has come around again. (I guess journalists get as bored in the summer as anyone else.) As always, the exercise results in a pile of rejection slips, and the papers scream "Gotcha."

This is very, very stupid, as anyone who knows anything about publishing can attest. The Penguin Blog does the best job of demolishing the story this time, and Grumpy Old Bookman took it on the last time around.

A book by Jane Austen has a certain value. A book supposedly written in the modern day -- by someone who is not Jane Austen -- that feels like an Austen pastiche, has a very much lesser value.

The lesson here is the exact opposite of what the gotcha types think it is: publishers are not dumb. They have a good sense of what is a plausible seller and what isn't. If that fails to coincide with some outside person's sense of what is "good," then that's not actually the publisher's problem.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Emergency Mid-Week Quote

It was a filthy profession, but the money was addicting, and one addiction led to another, and they were all going to hell. Turner had gone to hell, and Mike McAfferey had gone to hell. Wes "Green Thumb" Griffin developed a wandering eye, while Antonia Zennario, who used to joke that "all investors are made from Adam's rib," lost her sense of humor, and then her smile, and then her job. Carol Manning miscarried. Coyote Jack began to stutter on his numbers and was moved into management. They had all gone to hell. Sid Geeder hated them all and missed them like crazy. The phone rang constantly and everyone suffered cauliflower ears, neck rashes, and cervical pain, and when the sun came up in the morning and they had already been at their desk two, three hours, they went to the 41st floor window and imagined what it would be like to have to ride a bus or find a parking place."
- Po Bronson, Bombadiers, most of the first paragraph of chapter 1, "Filth"

Just Read: Company by Max Barry

For those of you in senior management, the top-line: Company is not quite as funny as it's been billed as -- and the ending is suspiciously mushy for a satire -- but it's a very pleasant, highly readable modern novel that actually has a point of view and stands for something.

This is a modern satire of capitalism, in which (as usual) a young naif is hired by a nasty, rapacious corporation and soon comes to learn how nasty and rapacious it really is. Too soon, actually -- our hero, Stephen Jones, learns a Big Secret about a third of the way through the book, and everything loses momentum and energy at that point. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Jones as, first, he tries to figure out what Zephyr Holdings actually does, and, second, as he tries to change Zephyr into something better. (There are sub-plots about the other members of the department he joins, but they stay background.)

I don't want to say what that Big Secret is, and it does seem pretty clever at the time of the reveal. But, as the book goes on, having the secret be revealed that early makes the other layers of satire a bit pointless. And the nature of the secret actually works against the book in the long run, by reducing the stakes. (I'll also note that this is yet another media product in which the characters, in a situation where they have information that would be eminently newsworthy and interesting, don't even seem to live in a world with major media that might be interested in such information.)

The best capitalist satires -- the best satires of any kind -- are over the top, full of outrageousness and vivid larger-than life characters. Company, by comparison, sticks a little too close to real life. It has quite a few funny-because-it's-true moments, but no funny-because-it's-better-than-true moments, which are the lifeblood of satire. The best modern satire of capitalism -- I'd even go so far as to call it the Catch-22 of our time -- is Po Bronson's magnificent first novel, Bombardiers. That book is awash in strong personalities, and marinated in a heady stew of vast amounts of money. There's never the same sense of big piles of cash at stake in Company -- this is a novel about wanting to keep a mediocre job, rather than about anything larger. It come pre-downsized, which I suppose is appropriate for the 21st century.

There are a few personalities in Company that could have risen to the needed heights, but Barry keeps humanizing them and trying to make them believable, fully-rounded characters, which works against his satire. He wants to be cutting without cutting anyone in particular, and to say that companies are nasty and soul-destroying without showing anyone whose soul has been destroyed. He can't have it both ways; Company could either have been a novel of character set in a weird company or a really stinging satire, but Barry oscillates back and forth between the two modes. Both are OK in their own right, but each undercuts the other.

Really effective satires of capitalism need to have protagonists who aren't goody-goodies. They can start out as young and naive, but they need to be seduced to the dark side at some point in the book; Jones really never is in Company. (I'll also mention Ted Heller's darkly splendid Slab Rat, as another book that gets this right.)

Once I started picking nits in Company, I started seeing more. Zephyr has the whole of a large building in downtown Seattle, but half of one middle-rank floor is taken up by four cubes, one window office, and one conference room. (I've worked on half-empty floors; they have an eerie darkened quality that would have worked well in this novel. Barry doesn't evoke this, and, in fact, it doesn't seem like there are the large empty spaces that must necessarily be there.) Similarly, Zephyr never considers leasing out some of its space. I might be misled about Oregon law, but a reference or two makes it seem that Zephyr employees work on European-style contracts, rather than American-style "employment at will." (The latter would be much better for Barry's points, too.)

I could go on and on. I shouldn't be thinking about pesky details in a satire, but this one keeps trying to be plausible, instead of visionary, and so the deviations from plausibility -- and there are many of them -- become obvious and grating. Company needed more money, more sex, more violence, just more.

I see I'm being very hard on this book, which is probably unfair: it's a very entertaining read, and I sped through it in three days. It made me think about satire and capitalism, and has some excellent scenes and ideas. But it could have been great, and that's what bugs me. Good books that only ever could have been good won't get me worked up, but a book that could have been much better is like a missing tooth; I can't stop poking at it.

If you think you want to read Company, don't let me stop you; you'll probably like it better than I did. (And I did enjoy every page, so you might well love it.) But the book you really want is Po Bronson's Bombardiers.

ComicMix, ComicMix, Mix Me a Comic

Things from me over there in the last day or two:
And two reviews:
More, as always, will follow.

How About a Free Book Day?

Edward Champion just suggested that the trade book business borrow an idea from the comics world (who probably got it from Ben & Jerry's to begin with) and institute Free Book Day.

I think that's a splendid idea -- if it worked along the lines of Free Comics Day, then each publisher who wanted to participate would create a book (probably short, certainly paperback) to be given away and retailers could decide whether they wanted to participate. Readers would just have to go to the right bookstore on the day, and take their pick. (And, like Free Comics Day, I bet a lot of those readers would spend some of their own money while they were there.)

Penguin could give away something like the 80p classics of a few years ago; St. Martin's could offer Evanovich's One for the Money, and Scholastic Garth Nix's Mister Monday. (I expect giving away the first in a series would generally be a good plan -- it's worked for e-books for several years.) Those are just random thoughts, but every house would have some property that could entice readers to other things, and authors willing to give away a little now to get more later.

Who could get this to happen? It could be be the best thing to happen to the book business since pre-cut pages...

O Hai! I Wuz Takin' Diz Test 4 U

I haven't done a meme in a while (that's what happens when you don't see LiveJournal posts for a while), so I picked this one up from the Amazing Klima:

Your Score: Ceiling Cat

28 % Affection, 40 % Excitability , 35 % Hunger
You are a master of stealth. They never see you coming. But you always see them coming. HEY-O!
Link: The Which Lolcat Are You? Test written by GumOtaku on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Just Read: Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits!

This is credited to Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd; Spiegelman wrote an essay for the New Yorker from which the text of this book was taken. (The changes from the magazine text to the book text appear to be minor.) Kidd, I believe, did the book design and possibly dug out and got the rights for the comics reprints included here.

So this is a weird book -- one part short biography of Jack Cole, one part appreciation of Plastic Man, and one part reprint collection. I'll take each part in turn.

As a biography, it's very short, but OK for what it is. There's probably a lot more of Cole's life to be teased out, but Spiegelman hits the high points, and tells us everything we really need to know.

Spiegelman is not very critical when it comes to Cole and Plas; he loves 'em, and wants us to know it. He is good at getting that enthusiasm across, but not always the reason for the enthusiasm. Sure, Plas is an interesting character, but so were dozens of others. Spiegelman also seems mostly interested in how Plas allowed Cole to design interesting pages, which is of primary interest only to other comics artists.

Lastly, the reprints here are aggressively "timely" (pun semi-intended, since they're mostly Quality comics); blown up to show huge dots, shot straight from yellowing newsprint, and otherwise very much artifacts of a vanished past rather than artworks being reproduced. I hated this in Kidd's Peanuts book, and I hate it here -- I know art directors might like the texture of it, but it uses the old stories and art as fodder for someone else's modern "artistic" design, rather than showing them as works in their own right. For a book that's supposedly about Jack Cole, I want Jack Cole, and not Chip Kidd's interpretation of him. Kidd even adds a dozen or so collage pages, mostly at the end, which are pure self-indulgence. My kid brother did a cut-and-paste "cutting edge" magazine in his high school days; these pages are much the same thing done with professional tools, and even less defensible.

The stories themselves -- two full-length Plas stories, one about Woozy Winks, and a later crime comic with a famous "injury to the eye" panel -- are OK, but I'd rather have a more concentrated dose of Plas, with a less distracting design. There are also some later Playboy cartoons, and lots of other stuff shoved in every which way (this is a heavily, heavily designed book, and can be hard to read because of it).

All in all, I'd have prefered a more sedate, down-to-earth package of the same stuff. The bells and whistles only distract from the content, which is what design should never do.

Just Read: The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part I by Larry Gonick

Yes, that's a long title, but you ain't seen nothing yet! Look for a post on the next book I read (maybe later tonight), which has an even longer one.

This is essentially the fourth volume of Gonick's long-running Cartoon History of the Universe, re-launched as Volume 1 with a slightly different title for what I presume are pure marketing reasons. It's otherwise exactly like the earlier books, with Gonick as the narrator (occasionally on-panel) and guide through history.

Gonick has a bias towards tolerance, peace, and prosperity, which can be a handicap for a historian; history is generally the record of the opposite of all those things. (I also suspect Gonick will come across as more of a contemporary liberal the closer that his history gets to the present day, but that isn't much of an issue when he's writing about squabbles between kings and popes. This is overview-level history, covering a couple of hundred years across the entire globe, so it can get sketchy at times. But Gonick is good at providing telling details to anchor the reader, and just putting the history into comics form works in his favor -- we can see the different characters, so he doesn't have to continuously repeat who they are.

I wouldn't rely on this as your one reference for world history in the 1500s and 1600s, but it's a nice overview, and I do like the way Gonick tells these stories. (Even if the stories themselves are about war, pogroms, genocide and other unpleasantnesses far too often. But, then, that's what history is: the record of what assholes humans are to each other.)