Sunday, September 30, 2007

He Done Her Wrong by Milt Gross

According to the publisher's blurbs and the afterword by Paul Karasik, this is the second wordless novel published in America (in 1930, one year after Lynd Ward's God's Man). It's funny and zany and cartoony in all the best ways, with gags piled upon gags and a plot left behind wherever necessary to make more jokes.

A tough backwoods type finds a girl, loves her, but is tricked by his despicable partner into staying deep in the woods while the partner woos the girl (with word that the hero is dead) and whisks her off to the big city.

It gets sillier and less obvious from there, since the heel doesn't keep the girl very long (after a run-in with a street-corner gum-vending machine) and soon is chasing after a rich matron. It all comes together in the end, of course, where the good end happily and the bad end unhappily. (Since that's what fiction means.)

Parts of this are a bit opaque seventy years later -- I had to be told that the thing that stymies the villain is a gum-vending machine, for example. (I thought perhaps it was a parking meter.) Especially without words, some cultural details can be difficult to understand. But it's still very funny, and a great example of what a good cartoonist can achieve without words.

Great American What?

Nick Mamatas weeps for the state of the American taffy pull.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

There are books that create entire genres in their wake. And I don't even mean the obvious ones, the Lord of the Ringses and The Firms -- a huge swath of late 20th century American lit would be vastly different, or missing entirely, without On the Road or The Catcher in the Rye. Another book that's been dragging young writers into its orbit for fifty years, like some literary black hole, is Catch-22. Almost every writer trying to describe an organization gets sucked up by Catch-22's gravitational pull, and some don't even try to break free.

I've written about Po Bronson's Bombadiers before, which I still think is as close to a "Catch-22 for business" as the world will ever come. But Joshua Ferris's first novel Then We Came To the End works similar territory for different ends, and is exceptionally successful along the way. While Bronson grabbed onto Heller's descriptions of combat and extreme personalities, Ferris is more interested in the structure of Catch-22 (or lack thereof), though he has his own cast of impressive oddballs.

Ferris's novel is set in an advertising agency in Chicago around 2000-2001; the memories of the flush times are still around, but belt-tightening and random layoffs are now painfully common. There's no main character; the book is narrated in the first person plural, as if by the gestalt of the worker bees. All of the staff reporting to agency partner Lynn Mason narrate this book, and none of them. Some of them get fired and all of them fear it; some of them have personal or work crises and some don't -- but all of them together tell the story, as if they're falling over each other to explain how it was, back in the good old days, when they all worked together.

Ferris manipulates the time-line of the novel by telling it piecemeal, backing and filling, jumping from one story to the next, and then doubling back. It's surprisingly effective, mimicking a long lunch conversation to say good-bye to a colleague or a water-cooler symposium late on a Friday afternoon. Then We Came To the End reads like people actually talking about the place they work -- chatting with each other, sharing private jokes, maneuvering for status and complaining about each other. I've worked with copywriters and art directors -- hell, I've worked in offices with people, which is what counts -- and this novel rings true.

And the characters -- from crazy Tom Mota to quiet golden boy Joe Pope -- are just as real. I might not have worked with people precisely like Karen Woo, Chris Yop, or Benny Shassburger, but I know their types, and I'm probably more like one or more of the people in this novel than I'd like to think.

The plot of Then We Came To the End can't be described; there is something like a linear plot, of a kind, in there, but you need to read the whole book to get it all. And it's not a huge plot, anyway -- these are a couple of people working at an ad agency. (To take very disaparate comparison books, that's what Catch-22 does right and Max Barry's Company does wrong -- the former is "about" WWII, the biggest war in memory, but concentrates on the petty actions of a few people, and the latter is about some company in Seattle, but blows that out of proportion.) Does Tom Mota go crazy? Does Benny Shassburger keep his job? Does Lynn Mason really have cancer? Those are important questions, and they are answered, but they're not what drives the book.

Then We Came To the End is like walking into a new job for the first time and going out to a long lunch with your new co-workers. You sit quietly as they spread old gossip, rehash old quarrels, and half-tell old jokes. The stories start out huge and complicated, but quickly turn familiar, funny, and fascinating. By the time you're done, you think: I've worked with these people before. I've known these people all my life. And then you go back to work.

If you work in an office, you'll probably want to read this.

Quote of the Week

I think I missed at least one week, so here's a long one, from the beginning of an impressive first novel:
We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen. Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything. Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled. We loved free bagels in the morning. They happened all too infrequently. Our benefits were astonishing in comprehensiveness and quality of care. Sometimes we questioned whether they were worth it. We thought moving to India might be better, or going back to nursing school. Doing something with the handicapped or working with our hands. No one ever acted on these impulses, despite their daily, sometimes hourly contractions. Instead we met in conference rooms to discuss the issues of the day.

Ordinarily jobs came in and we completed them in a timely and professional manner. Sometimes fuckups did occur. Printing errors, transposed numbers. Our business was advertising and details were important. If the third number after the second hyphen in a client's toll-free number was a six instead of an eight, and it went to print like that, and showed up in Time magazine, no one reading the ad could call now and order today. No matter they could go to the website, we still had to eat the cost of the ad. Is this boring you yet? It bored us every day. Our boredom was ongoing, a collective boredom, and it would never die because we would never die.
-- Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End, pp.3-4

Welcome to Banned Books Week

This is the ALA's Banned Books Week, so I figure I should note that. Maybe I'll re-read Daniel Clowes's Ice Haven (the original comics version of which just got a Connecticut high school English teacher fired) to celebrate.

(If there are any kids out there, I'll recommend what I did as a teenager: printing out a copy of the current version of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books list, and reading as many of them as you can. You'll probably hate some of them -- I've never much like The Diary of Anne Frank, I'm afraid -- but it's a great education in what other people don't want you to think about.)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Movie Log: Harvey

The only other time I saw Harvey was in a hotel room in the early '80s, when my family almost moved to Washington, DC. So it was about time to see it again.

It's very old-fashioned, very stagy, and relies on a certain bland mid-century mindset and outlook. (What, I wondered about one reel into this movie, do all the self-satisfied well-upholstered well-off middle-aged women do with themselves these days? I guess most of them have real jobs, and a fair number of them run Fortune 500 companies.)

It took a good reel or two before I could even take Harvey seriously, this time through -- it just doesn't play as a naturalistic movie at all, anymore, so you have to accept its world for the duration.

Jimmy Stewart plays Elwood P. Dowd, scion of a wealthy, socially prominent family in wherever-the-hell-this-is, who was relatively normal until his mother died a few years back. Since then, he's become a raging alcoholic (by '50s movie standards: he drinks as much as the heroes of every other movie do, but shows the effects a bit more) who claims his best friend and constant companion is a six-foot tall invisible rabbit.

As far as plot goes, his sister (Josephine Hull, playing roughly the Margaret Dumont role from every Marx Brothers movie) tries to have him committed to a nearby asylum, but hyuk! hyuk! they think she's crazy! (Can you beat that!?) Now it's possible that this plot was new and virginal in 1950, but I suspect not -- I expect there are a half-dozen Elizabethan plays with similar set-ups, and probably a fair bit of Aristophanes. The asylum is the typical abusive snake-pit, of course, even though all of the folks associated with it are proverbial Good Eggs -- this doesn't exactly make sense, and makes the movie seem to portray a view of good mental health as a matter of sufficient physical torment, but leave that aside for now.

So Harvey is very much a movie of its times, and it's entirely held together by Stewart's Dowd, who is nicer and pleasanter than can adequately be described. It's a good performance, and we certainly always have the sense that he believes in Harvey, but it is a bit too nice.

Harvey is still an entertaining movie, but it was a cartoon when it was made, and it's now a cartoon of something that's no longer familiar at all, so even the exaggerations don't entirely make sense anymore. If you have any interest in classic film comedy, you need to see it, but remember that it was a play first, that it was made in 1950, and that Hollywood has never gotten anything about psychology correct.

Still, I'll always have a soft spot for the film that gave the world one of my favorite quotes:
Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this world, Elwood, you must be" -- she always called me Elwood -- "In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

Movie Log: Avenue Montaigne

I think I added Avenue Montaigne to my Netflix queue on a whim -- or perhaps it was a recommendation -- and it came last week, also on a whim. (I saw three movies last weekend, and I'm still catching up.)

is French, and yet another example of the "several loosely related plots" genre, which I seem to be a fan of. (I keep seeing movies like that, and liking them, so I guess it must mean something.)

Jessica (Cecile De France -- and did you ever see a more portentous name in your life? I sincerely hope she didn't pick it herself) moves to Paris to seek her fortune on the advice of her aged grandmother, who did the same thing in her own time. Jessica gets a job at a cafe in a trendy, upscale district, purely because three major events will be happening simultaneously in a few days, and the cafe's headwaiter knows he'll need more servers on hand.

The three major events each supply characters and drama to our movie: there's a wealthy art collector who is auctioning off his entire collection, a classical pianist preparing for a major concert, and a famous actress from a TV soap opera appearing in a Feydeau play. We also have the general manager of the arts center (or whatever it is; her area of control seems to include both the pianist's concert hall and the actress's theater), who is retiring after a long career. She also shows up in the pianist and actress plots, but doesn't really have a plot-line of her own.

Jessica wanders through the lives of those three people, and their individual problems (the pianist hates the high-end circuit and wants to quite it; the actress want to play de Beauvoir in a movie directed by Sydney Pollack-playing-himself-with-a-different-name; and the art collector is somewhat estranged from his grown son due to his new young wife) are solved as Jessica affects them all. It's not quite Amelie, but it's not precisely trying to be, either. (But it's definitely along those lines.)

Nothing is absolutely wonderful about this film, but it's all professional and entertaining. De France and Valerie Lemercier (as the actress) are both quite good, and the rest of the performances (except maybe Pollack) are good enough to not call attention to themselves. If you enjoy the light, frothy kind of French movie (as opposed to the Catherine Breillat sort), you'll probably like this.

Oddly, this had a title change for the US release, though it wasn't dubbed into English. The original French title was Fauteuils d'Orchestre. I believe that means "Orchestra Seats," more or less, and is a phrase and metaphor that shows up in the movie. As an official Ugly American, I have no idea where Avenue Montaigne is or what it has to do with anything. So the title change was not entirely effective for me.

Incoming Books, Week of 9/29

This was a big week; The Wife has started to complain that I get more mail (especially packages) than she does. And, in my new spirit of secrecy, I won't just give you a huge boring list of everything. Instead, I'll divide it up by provenance:
  • Dark Horse sent me four books, two of which I think I'm going to cover at ComicMix and two of which I want to write about this weekend here. (We'll see if I get to them that quickly.)
  • Night Shade sent me two Lucius Shepard novels and Matt Hughes's The Spiral Labyrinth, which all go on the already too-full shelves of books I want to read Right Now.
  • I got two Young Adult novels from various pieces of Random House. I'd like to cover more YA here, so I hope to get to at least one of them pretty soon. (And, in an odd coincidence, the book I'm starting to read today is also a YA novel.)
  • I took a trip to the comics shop this week, and got a small pile for my boys and a somewhat more expensive pile for me, including The Best American Comics 2007, a new Hellboy collection, and Marvel's fourth collection of Walt Simonson's great Thor run.
  • And Ballantine sent me a huge mass of materials, including a pile of manga, a guide to manga, and some more Flight collections.
So I should be reviewing a lot of stuff for ComicMix over the next few weeks...

Friday, September 28, 2007

I Mean, If I Went Round Saying I Was an Emperor Because Some Moistened Bint Had Lobbed a Scimitar at Me...

I'd be justified, since I did far too well on a silly meme/test:

Your Score: King Arthur

You scored 78Worthiness!

You're King Arthur. Charged with the nobel task of finding the grail by God himself. You know exactly what you're doing and you're on top of every situation.

"It is I, Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, from the castle of Camelot. King of the Britons, defeator of the Saxons, sovereign of all England!"

"The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king!"

Link: The Monty Python & The Holy Grail Test written by Silent_Tiger on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test

How's That, Again?

I don't want to hear anyone complaining about how technical and incomprehensible "Hard SF" is, when even the literary types come out with explanations like this:
The set-up is this: we are on one of the Beach planets. A generation--perhaps two--after Ed Chianese took his ship The Black Cat off the Beach and into the Kefahuchi Tract, part of the Tract has fallen to earth in a city called Saudade. It's a zone of the unreliable. It's infected with K-code: or maybe it is K-code, the wrong physics loose in the universe.
Um, OK. If you say so...

(From here. Note that the author in question didn't define any of those terms -- or even mention them -- earlier in the interview.)

The Empire Never Ended, Again

GalleyCat reports today that the Library of America will have another volume of Philip K. Dick novels, again selected and edited by Jonathan Lethem, in the near future. This one will have five novels of the '60s and '70s -- possibly among them, GalleyCat guesses, A Maze of Death; Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, A Scanner Darkly, Galactic Pot-Healer and/or VALIS.

Update, 9/28: Lethem announced the final line-up, and SF Signal published it. The second, title as yet unspecified, PKD LOA collection will contain:
  • Martian Time-Slip
  • Dr. Bloodmoney
  • Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said
  • A Scanner Darkly
  • Now Wait for Last Year
A fine list, but my objections to doing edited selections instead of Collected Works in the LOA still stands. The point of the LOA is to do the complete works, in chronological order, of important writers. There are plenty of other publishers who do other things; it's not as if Dick is out of print. If someone's not important enough for a complete works, he's not important enough for the LOA to begin with.

Burying Caesar, Not Praising Him

Let's say you're John Clute, writing an obituary of Robert Jordan for The Independent. You want to say nice things about the guy -- he's dead, and that's the gig -- but you also want to make your regular lofty critical position clear, and avoid saying anything overly positive that may be quoted against you later.

So your lede is:
The overwhelming presence of J.R.R. Tolkien blighted the careers of many writers who could not escape his shadow.
In context, "blighting" specifically does not mean "writing a long, somewhat Tolkien-derivative, exceptionally popular, fantasy series," since that's exactly what Jordan did, and you immediately go on to praise him for just that Tolkienian achievement.

So the study question is this: who, exactly, are these writers blighted by the presence of Tolkien? And what on earth do they have to do with anything?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ha'penny by Jo Walton

Last year, Jo Walton's novel Farthing imagined a horribly plausible world -- one where a British aristocratic set brokered a peace with Hitler's Germany in 1941 and England itself started sliding into Fascism -- and used it as the backdrop for a country-house murder mystery. That story was told in alternating chapters: third person for Scotland Yard's Inspector Carmichael, first person for a young woman caught up in the plots and the murder.

Ha'penny is a loose sequel to Farthing; it takes place a few weeks later, with Carmichael investigating another crime, and with a different young woman providing the first-person voice. Like Farthing, it's again a woman of aristocratic family who has great sympathy for the people getting the short end of the stick. This time, it's Viola Larkin, an actress and thinly-disguised Mitford sister; she has Diana's place in the age line-up, but something like Nancy's politics. (Though nothing like Nancy's wit and insight, or the plot would be very different.)

The crime this time is terrorism: a bomb has exploded in a quiet London home, and Carmichael must find out if it was deliberate or an accident...and if any plotters are still active and planning bombs for other locations.

At the same time, Viola has gotten the part of a lifetime: she is to play Hamlet in a major gender-reversed production. And her premiere performance as the conflicted Dane will be attended by Chancellor Hitler and England's new Prime Minister Normanby, who is himself in the process of shoving through "reforms" to consolidate power. And one bomb in the right place on the night could save two nations...or throw them into bloody repression for a whole generation.

Of course the two plots intersect, and you can probably work out the general outlines of that intersection, if you want to -- but you'd be much better served by just reading the book.

Ha'penny is not quite as successful as Farthing, but it's a somewhat more honest book. In Farthing, the government plotters called their enemies "terrorists" as a pretext to round them up or dispose of them. But in Ha'penny, we see that there really are anti-government terrorists, though they're not the "Jews" and "communists" that Normanby claims to be rooting out. And we might even sympathize with them, as we see them planning their murders.

I do have to admit that Walton can pound on her thematic materials (Hamlet and the "Larkin" sisters, plus a lot of people talking about security and fascism, racism and fear) with too heavy a hammer. She clearly intends these novels to mirror our own times, which is not necessarily the best way to write fiction. Luckily, she doesn't make the parallels explicit; the fascism in these two novels is a very homegrown English sort, built on the class system and the old-boy network -- exactly the sort of society that, in our world, WWII shattered into pieces forever.

Walton is a natural at writing detective fiction; the story flows out wonderfully, dragging the reader along in its wake. I had to put this book down for a while, but I hated to do so -- Viola's actions deeply annoyed me, but they were still exactly the way I'd expect a woman like her to act. Ha'penny is something of an anti-mystery novel, as Farthing was; they're both books that don't renormalize the world at the end, that don't set the world back in order. This is a world that cannot be set back in order by the actions of a few people acting in secret. But I hope it is still a world that could be set into order, that isn't irreparably broken.

Ha'penny doesn't have the white-hot fury behind it that Farthing did; it's a colder, calmer, more collected book. And so it might not be as immediately impressive, but, in its portraits of ordinary people living with endless dread, it achieves a chilling power all its own. It's a fine work of alternate history, a tightly-plotted mystery, and a nasty look at a world we can be happy we didn't get.

Stephen Fry on Fame

He might not be completely serious, but I still found this (part of a much longer "blessay") amusing:
Is it fun? Or, as student journalists always ask, what’s it like? ‘What’s it like working with Natalie Portman, what’s it like doing QI, what’s it like being famous?’ I don’t know what it is like. What is being English like? What is wearing a hat like? What’s eating Thai red curry like? I don’t believe that I can answer any question formulated that way. So, student journalists, tyro profilers and rooky reporters out there, seriously, quite seriously never ask a ‘what’s it like’ question, it instantly reveals your crapness. I used to try getting surreal when asked the question and say things like ‘being famous is like wearing blue pyjamas at the opera. It’s like kissing Neil Young, but only on Wednesdays. It’s like a silver disc gummed to the ear of a wolverine. It’s like licking crumbs from the belly of a waitress called Eileen. It’s like lemon polenta cake but slightly wider. It’s like moonrise on the planet Posker.’ I
mean honestly. What’s it like?? Stop it at once.

How to Make More Bestsellers

The New York Times is one of the few entities in this world that can simply create more bestsellers, and they've just done so.

So, authors, if you still can't make any of those lists, it must be your own damn fault. What, you're too good to write this generation's Lincoln's Doctor's Dog?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Zot! Zot! Zot!

(Sorry for the repetitive headline, but I felt like I had to one-up Chris Roberson, who pointed me at this Publishers Weekly story.)

HarperCollins has announced that they will be reprinting all of Scott McCloud's great Zot! comic, in one big volume, in July 2008.

On the one hand, this is great news, since it's been out of print for ages, and the last quarter of the series was never collected.

On the other hand, I already have the three Kitchen Sink trade paperbacks collecting the first twenty-seven issues (not to mention all of the original comics), so buying most of this for a third time just to have the end in a shelf-friendly form makes me a bit grumpy.

And, on the gripping hand, HarperCollins says their whole book will be 576 pages long...but just the story pages from the first three Kitchen Sink books (including 27 of the 36 total issues) add up to 586 pages. So, either Harper is actually going to be doing it in two volumes, their one book will be closer to 750 pages, or somebody made an unfortunate math error.

(And it looks like the webcomics won't be included, or the Chuck Austen-drawn two-parter "Getting to 99," or Matt Feazel's "Dimension 10 1/2" stories," no matter how long the book is. I'm not sure the webcomics could be reprinted on paper -- but that doesn't stop me wanting them to be.)

Update, 9/26: I misread the PW story; this volume will fit everything into 576 pages by starting on issue 11 and skipping the first storyline (all 250-ish pages of it). I can understand if McCloud isn't as fond of his earliest work; it does have uneven patches. But leaving it out entirely doesn't seem right to me, either. But at least this explains my question.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Movie Log: My Neighbor Totoro

One of the two great holes in my family-movie experience has finally been filled; my two boys and I watched My Neighbor Totoro last weekend over lunch for our "Boys' Movie Saturday" feature. (The other hole is The Iron Giant, which I also hope to get to this fall.)

Totoro is a lovely film, and much quieter than the other Miyazaki movies I've seen. (They've all been fine movies, but the others are much more filled with action and incident than this movie is.) A professor and his two young daughters moves to a house in the Japanese countryside in the what seems to be the late '40s or early '50s, while their wife and mother (respectively) is being treated in a hospital for what might be tuberculosis. And then the girls (Satsuki, about 8, and Mei, about 4) meet some local nature spirits, while they worry about their mother's condition.

That's it for plot: there are some events (and some great scenes, mostly involving the largest spirit, or "Totoro" -- that's him to the left on the cover -- or a bus in the shape of a cat), but that's really all that's going on. There are some secondary characters, such as a boy Satsuki's age who probably likes her but goes out of his way not to show it, and the boy's grandmother, but they do stay secondary characters. This is one part character study and one part mood piece; it's about the two girls and their new home in equal parts.

What's really amazing about Totoro the way it allows itself to be slow. Traditionally filmed movies sometimes linger on scenes, but animation -- where every second of action, every minor movement, has to be hand-drawn over and over again for each frame of film -- is usually much tighter, sacrificing quietness for pace. Totoro doesn't do that at all; it feels like Miyazaki is allowing his camera to run freely, capturing scenes as they happen and soaking up the quiet rural atmosphere.

I'll want to watch this again, and I'll probably want to see the original Fox dub as well, to compare-and-contrast (I see that some viewers have very strong opinions one way or the other) it to this newer Disney version. But, even if this dub isn't as good as the previous one (as some people claim), My Neighbor Totoro is still a wonderful, amazing movie.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Linking the Night Away

My very last ComicMix link-list:
And another one in what I hope will be a very long line of reviews there:
(Now that I'm not obsessively trying to keep up with 500 blogs a day, I might have a few minutes to think, too...)

The Horror in the Museum by H.P. Lovecraft and Others

One of the problems of loving a minor author like H.P. Lovecraft is that, often, there just isn't all that much of his work to love. Sure, Lovecraft wrote several million words of letters, but what we really like are his stories -- and there are only the three big collections of those, right? (The Dunwich Horror and Others, At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels, and Dagon and Other Macabre Tales)

Wrong. There's a fourth big Lovecraft book, originally from Arkham House, collecting the stories he revised for other writers. And that might sound a little dubious -- Lovecraft tinkering with other people's writing? how can a writer as idiosyncratic as Lovecraft mesh with another writer's style? -- but the results are amazing. Of course, it helps that the bulk of this book is made up of stories that were, at best, "suggested" and paid for by other writers, but were entirely written by Lovecraft. Lovecraft was a poor collaborator, but that just meant that he did all of the work himself and subsumed the stories into his own mythos.

I didn't discover The Horror in the Museum myself until I was reading for my senior English thesis at Vassar -- I had conned convinced the department to let me write on Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and Lovecraft, and so I was reading through all of the fictional works of those three writers. I was sure Horror in the Museum would be minor, but I wanted to be thorough, so I sat down with it.

And it completely amazed me. There's a novella in this book, "The Mound," which is the equal of At the Mountains of Madness; it's one of Lovecraft's very best stories, but only known to his most devoted fans. Several other stories -- "The Curse of Yig," "The Horror in the Museum," and "Winged Death" -- are also worthy of standing among Lovecraft's best work. And Horror also contains one of the most fascinating, uncomfortable stories Lovecraft ever wrote, as full of supernatural menace as any of his work, with the voice of a mature Lovecraft utterly in control, and a denouement as shocking to modern sensibilities as "The Horror at Red Hook." The story is "Medusa's Coil," and, by a certain light, it's also one of Lovecraft's best stories -- though it shows a side of him that we'd prefer not to remember.

In all, Horror has twenty-four stories, and two-thirds of the book -- thirteen of the stories -- are "primary revisions," stories in which Lovecraft wrote all or nearly all the prose.

The Arkham House edition of The Horror in the Museum, the original hardcover, is now out of print. But Del Rey -- who have been doing stylish Lovecraft books since Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre (which I read twenty-five years ago on a beach, since I wasn't going to read Lovecraft anywhere less bright and cheery than that) -- has brought out a brand-new edition of Horror, with a new introduction by Stephen Jones and an appropriately creepy John Jude Palencar cover.

So all you Lovecraft fans: you missed one. And here it is.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Movie Log: Venus

The Wife and I saw Venus about a week ago now, and a bit of dialogue from it has already entered our personal language. (It's the bit about "chuffs and bumps," for those who've seen the film.)

Genre-wise, the movie is an odd romance, between sophisticated seventy-something Londoner Maurice (Peter O'Toole), a reasonably well-known actor, and the poorly-educated, thick-accented, nineteen-year-old Jessie (Jody Whittaker), the grand-niece of his best friend. (Jessie has just arrived in London after some troubles at home.) To be honest, the romance is mostly on Maurice's side; he's fascinated with Jessie as a pretty young thing and I got the feeling that he's "attempting to seduce" her simply because that's what he's been used to doing with girls like her for the past fifty-some years. On the other hand, she comes to at least somewhat enjoy it, and also is clearly using him (or her sexual power over him) to achieve her own ends.

I can't in honesty call this a romantic comedy, even though it does have some very funny and amusing moments. In the grand scheme of things, there are comedies and there are tragedies, and comedies end with a marriage. This is not a movie that could ever end with a marriage; it follows the iron law of movies in which an older person teacher a younger person about life...and if you don't know what that iron law is, you need to see a few more movies.

Jessie wants to be a model -- though she has no poise, a permanent sullen expression, eats constantly, and has that horrible, occasionally impenetrable, regional accent. Maurice gets her work as a life drawing model, but Jessie is appalled at getting nude. (This is where the chuffs and bumps come in.) Venus is dominated by O'Toole -- he was nominated for an Oscar for it, and with good reason -- but it's Jessie's story. It's that old cliche, a young person taught about life and love by a wise older person, but done with grace and spirit (and accurately foul mouths for sullen teenagers and ancient actors).

There's also some good comedy between Maurice and his best friend, Jessie's grand-uncle, Ian (Leslie Phillips). (Richard Griffiths also shows up in a few scenes as a third friend.)

All in all, it's not quite as generic and obvious as one might fear, but it does go pretty much where you'd expect it to. And, going into this movie, you have to be willing to accept a kind of romance between a man in his seventies and a women who isn't quite twenty. But, given that, it's full of fine performances and great lines, and is a movie well worth seeing.

Incoming Books, Week of 9/22

This week, the books coming into La Casa Hornswoggler included:
  • Chuck Klosterman IV, a collection of pop-culture essays and criticism, which I actually paid money for;
  • three "real" books and two comics from the library, including Karen Russell's first short story collection St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, since she really impressed me at the KGB Bar reading this week;
  • and a big box of stuff from Top Shelf for review at ComicMix -- it looks like fodder for at least two different round-ups and a solo review.
And now I want to try to finish off Jo Walton's Ha'penny today, while The Wife and kids are off apple-picking, so I can start the commute to the new job tomorrow morning with a new book. (Probably Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, also from that library trip.)

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Plastic Man: On the Lam! by Kyle Baker

I read the first few issues of Kyle Baker's Plastic Man series as they came out in 2004 -- eagerly, since I was a big Baker fan from back in the days of Why I Hate Saturn and The Cowboy Wally Show. But I dropped the book after the first plotline, feeling vaguely let down and unexcited. (And the series itself petered out not too long after that.) I wondered if my lack of interest was due to me or the story, so I found this trade paperback compilation of that first Baker storyline and decided to re-read it.

(Parenthetically, this has a great production design -- the cover is plastic, like some waterproof book, and it looks like Plaz in the form of a book. I appreciate it when designers go that extra step and make the design really match the style and sensibility of a book.)

I had pretty much the same reaction this time as I'd had the first time I read these issues. Baker's art is clean, colorful, and idiosyncratic...but it also keeps looking to my eye like screenshots from an animated show, and isn't as appealing to me as his old style. (Yes, it's not all that different from his old style -- I think it's just a difference in tools -- but there's something a bit colder and flatter about his art now. This might be a purely personal reaction, but it's been consistent; Baker's new work doesn't look as appealing to my eye as his old stuff. Or maybe I just like his stuff better in black & white, since I do like his recent family humor strips.)

The stories are a good mix of the silly and the serious; the tone is just right for Plaz, and it works well with the similarly-toned art. But...I liked it intellectually, and thought "this is the way a Plastic Man comic should be done" rather than really enjoying it and laughing at the jokes. Maybe I'm too old to appreciate it the way it should be appreciated, but it still didn't strike me the way it should have.

So I'm lukewarm here -- I think Baker is the perfect writer-artist for a modern Plastic Man title, and that he's hitting the right tone here, but there's something indefinable missing. I guess what I'm finally saying is that the sheet music is right, the conductor is right, and the band is playing on key and in tempo -- but I just don't feel the song. Again, that may easily be me and not Baker. If you have any affection for the traditional, funny version of Plastic Man, you should at least look at this book -- it might hit you in a way it didn't me.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Flight, Vol. 3 edited by Kazu Kibuishi

I haven't read any of the other Flight anthologies, but this one fits with what I've heard about them -- it's full of very professional-looking work by lots of people I've never heard of. The stories often have layouts and art styles clearly derived from animation or storyboards, and the plots often hit obvious Hollywood-style beats. (There's a "War Is Bad, M'Kay?" story, and several on the importance of being your own person, and so on.)

What's interesting about it is that it's mostly comics work by people who are professional artists of one kind or another, but mostly aren't trying to making a living telling comics stories. They're storyboard artists, or work in video gaming design, or something else like that. And these are stories that they're telling in their spare time -- not as a springboard to getting to pencil Spider-Man, but just because they wanted to tell a comics story. (And that's very refreshing.)

I found many of these stories slightly too obvious, but they were all pleasant, and the package is very nice. I'm also encouraged to see an anthology that doesn't ape the prevailing indy-comics aesthetic (deliberately grungy in tone, style and subject matter -- not necessarily autobiographical, or incoherent, but tending that way). Flight feels like the mainstream comics of a healthier world, one where superheroes aren't as entrenched, and comics are more like other forms of popular entertainment. It's not jaw-droppingly wonderful, but it's quite nice, and it's a big, thick, full-color book with the work of dozens of people you probably haven't heard of either. I'll be looking for the other three volumes myself.

Two Buddhas on the Road

On Tuesday, I read two more volumes in Osamu Tezuka's big eight-volume retelling of the life of the Buddha -- Vol. 5: Deer Park and Vol. 6: Ananda. (Previous volumes: Kapilavastu, 1; Devadatta, 3; The Forest of Uruvela, 4.)

As before, much of the bulk of these books is taken up by melodramatic stories about minor characters (many of whom become Buddha's disciples eventually). In Deer Park, the former brigand Tatta becomes a guard in the service of the King of Magadha; his service culminates with a duel with the giant Yatala (of the guard of the King of Kosala, the country that conquered Siddhartha/Buddha's homeland). Then, in the end of the book, the focus shifts back to Buddha directly, with a couple of parables and his the recruiting of his first monk disciples. The different bits are well-told, but this one definitely feels like middle, with captions saying things like "and this will be important later" or "that meeting colored all of their subsequent lives" or even "and this will be on the test, so pay attention."

The title character of Ananda was shaped by a female snake demon to be Buddha's nemesis, and we follow his story for about the first half of this sixth book. Then he's finally caught in a trap the demon can't save him from...but Buddha arrives serendipitously to drive out the demon, recruit Ananda, and, along the way, start building a larger group of followers by humbling first revered one leader of fire monks, and then his two brothers. That's pretty much the whole story here; Buddha's movement is starting to gather speed, but this book, also, doesn't really end a story of its own in the way that the earlier books did.

The modern references are still jarring, but that's just the way Tezuka seems to work -- melodrama runs right into slapstick, and serious philosophy follows low comedy. The screwball little kids aren't much in evidence in these volumes (the one major kid character is a sullen grump of a prince), but we do have people kicked through panel borders and several references to this being a work of fiction. (One character takes off his helmet because "it's tough for Tezuka to draw.") Since the whole of Buddha is such a long story, and will presumably end with Buddha's death, there aren't a whole lot of narrative hooks to drag the reader forward into later books. Again, the individual stories are interesting, and Buddha's teachings obviously have weight and substance, but the structure of the overall project is a bit diffuse.

But, at this point, I might as well see how it all comes out...if I can dig up copies of the last two books. (My local library system doesn't have them.)

Slow News Day

My new job was worth a GalleyCat post?

The world is much odder than I imagined. On the other hand, more of it seems to be centered on me that I had previously dreamed possible, which should be a good thing...

One More Set of Links

Today's ComicMix links:
Enjoy them while you can; I doubt I'll have time to continue them once I start the new job. (And, between you, me, and the lamp-post, link-blogging is tedious work, long hours of toil for an end product I was never completely happy with.)

On Putting Books Down

Wednesday night, on the way home from the KGB reading, I had to put down the book I was reading; I didn't pick it up again yesterday, but I hope to get back to it this weekend.

Some books you put down because they're annoyingly wrong, or just annoying -- but this one I had to put it down because it was too true.

Now, I'm a man, so I'm familiar with male violence. I don't like it, and I think my temper is much better than it used to be, but I know a bit about violence, and the sources of violence. What I don't know, at least not firsthand, is that horrible fascination some women have for dangerously violent men.

I recognize that it's real -- it's been canonized in the romance field as the "bad boy" subgenre, where of course the violent men are tamed by the true love of a heroine -- but when I'm reading a book with a first-person narrator who goes weak in the knees (and other places) over a man who has just explicitly threatened her with death, I need to stop for a while.

Not because it's not exactly right; not because I don't believe completely in her reaction. But because I do, and because I wish the human race wasn't like that...either of them.

I Have Fallen to the Dark Side...

...and I have to tell you, it feels great.

My job search is over; I'm starting my new job on Monday after being unemployed almost exactly four months. I am now a Marketing Manager for John Wiley in Hoboken, which means I'll have to stop referring to myself as an editor -- I am now officially a "publishing professional."

Some editors are not fond of marketing people, but I always got along well with them at my old shop -- which was good, since the nature of the bookclub business meant that we worked very closely together, and much of what I did was more marketing than editorial to begin with. From what various Wiley people have told me about their organization, the relationships among marketing, editorial, and creative services is similarly collaborative at Wiley, so it should feel like home.

There are probably a few of you shaking your heads at the word "Marketing," but wait! it gets even more interesting. The line of books I'll be working on is...Accounting! Stable, dependable, successful, and unlikely to steal my weekend reading time. It's not much like science fiction, but SF wasn't much like hunting & fishing, large print, or playscripts, and I worked on all of those for years at a time at the bookclubs. Wiley has an array of strong brands and market-leading expertise, and I am very excited to be joining their team.

Other good things:
  • Marketing pays better than Editorial in general
  • I'm working in New Jersey, so good-bye to double state taxation
  • I will now get to work on a train, not a bus
  • My new office will be barely two blocks from the train station
I don't expect to say much at all about my day-job from this point forward; I don't think anyone would care, for one thing. And I never wrote much about the day-to-day stuff at the clubs to begin with; descriptions of office work are either boring or legally actionable, and I try to avoid both of those categories.

So, until I get the laptop I've been thinking about (and maybe can post at lunchtimes), Antick Musings will only get updates nights and weekends. But I've got several things stacked up from this week, so I hope to post a flurry of things this weekend, before I start the 9-5 thing again. Reviews will continue -- I actually read more while commuting than when at home, with the distractions of kids and computer -- so if anyone has stuff for possible review, please contact me.

Update, later in the day: A couple of people have asked, here or in e-mail, whether I'll still be going to conventions. I'm planning on still doing a few, but they won't count as business trips anymore and I won't be on an expense account, so I'll probably be pickier. I'll definitely be at World Fantasy in Saratoga this year and almost certainly at Lunacon in March. After that, I'm not sure of my precise plans -- it depends on timing and other issues. I'd love to go to Worldcon in Denver, but I don't know how likely that is. (Ditto next year's WFC in Calgary.) But I'll certainly still be around, one way or another.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Stuff at ComicMix

For the second time this week, I have both a link-list and a double-review. I am on fire, people!

The Links:
And the review:
(which reviews The Plain Janes and Good As Lily)

All of That Lost Like Yesterday's Links

I was out last night at the KGB reading for The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, so I didn't get to note this post's existence (or work on one for today, for that matter) then. Yesterday's Links were
And there might not be one today, so that'll have to tide you over for a bit...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More on Jordan

Robert Jordan/Jim Rigney has not been well-served by his New York Times or SFWA obituaries, but this write-up in the Los Angeles Times is a model of what a good obituary should do for a major figure.

Today Is Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Fads have a natural half-life, and die pretty quickly. One-day-a-year fads try to avoid that by not wearing out their welcome all at once, but, still, every year, it becomes slightly less interesting and more stilted, until, finally, we give up on it.

Are we there yet with Talk Like a Pirate Day? (Or am I just a grump?)

Aaaargh, for those so inclined.

Three Tachyons

If there's one thing everyone knows about Tachyons, it's that they travel faster than light. I, on the other hand, am much slower than that, so these Tachyons have been piling up faster than I could write about them.

Tachyon Publications is one of the great smaller presses in the SF field -- they don't get as much attention as some other houses, but they do excellent books, like Tim Powers's collection Strange Itineraries (one of the first books I covered here at Antick Musings) and Michael Swanwick's most recent collection The Dog Said Bow-Wow. And I have on hand right here three recent books from Tachyon that are all worthy of your time and consideration.

I think most people's favorite Peter S. Beagle novel is The Last Unicorn, but, for me, it was always A Fine and Private Place. It's a quiet tale of romance set in a graveyard, and one of the best fantasy novels of our times. Now, after many years with an odd cover, it finally has a design and look that does it justice.

If you want to turn a writer green, make him read this novel.
Then point out that it was Beagle's first novel, published in 1960, when he was twenty-one. (And so, obviously, it was written when he was even younger than that.) Plenty of fantasy writers work for decades in the hopes of getting as good as Peter Beagle was the first time out of the box.

If you've never read Beagle, start here. If you've only read The Last Unicorn, you have a real treat ahead of it. And, if you have one of the funny-looking old editions, might I suggest it's time to renew your shelves?

Harlan Ellison is one of the great short-story writers of the late 20th century. (Of this genre or that one? No, just one of the best, full stop.) And the '70s were his peak of production, both in quantity and quality. For once in my hype-filled life, I'm not going to claim that Shatterday is Ellison's very best collection -- I'd claim his previous book, Deathbird Stories, for that slot, mostly because it has a thematic consistency and power that's exceptionally rare in a short-story collection -- but Shatterday is a strong #2, and it's been out of print in the US since before I could drink legally (and, if you've seen my gray hairs recently, you'll know that's a long time). So this is a book to jump on while it's available.

Why? Well, it leads off with "Jefty Is Five," a story you might have heard of. (I certainly hope so.) It's got the amusingly nasty "How's the Night Life on Cissalda?", the nastier but also amusing "The Man Who Was Heavily Into Revenge," "All the Lies That Are My Life," and the title story. And about ten more stories from Ellison's peak years. There's a lot of good stuff here, raw and powerful, as Ellison is at his best.

There's also a whole generation that knows Ellison only as a media figure, with his the recent legal battles and scandals, and the years kvetching on the Sci-Fi Channel before that. Those are exactly the people -- you might even be one of them yourself -- who needs to see what Ellison is like as a writer at the top of his game. Get this book or get Deathbird Stories (or get The Essential Ellison, if you're the kind of reader who wants more of everything). Some of the stories you'll love and some of them you'll hate -- I can't say which, since every reader is different. But there's no one in the field who can be lukewarm about a Harlan Ellison story.

Sometimes I feel like I've spent the last decade or more explaining to people that cyberpunk was a specific literary movement that occurred in a time and place, and was over well before the '80s were. (Those people, who often weren't even alive then, generally don't believe me. This may be because they're mouth-breathing ahistoric morons, or perhaps I'm just still under the influence of Harlan Ellison.) But I'm hoping this anthology will make it easier to make my case.

Since here we have a big, serious anthology of post-CP stories, some of them a decade old at this point, surely -- surely -- we can agree that cyberpunk, the thing itself, had to have ended sometime before that? (I'm not sure if they'll believe me, even now, but I'll keep trying.)

Regardless of its usefulness as a rhetorical weapon against young punks, Rewired is a fine anthology of recent SF stories. What makes them all "post-cyberpunk" isn't always easy to define, though I think all of us will generally agree that the line-up of writers here is the post-CP crowd, if there is one. Rewired was edited by James Patrick Kelly (who was included in the famous canon-building Bruce Sterling CP anthology Mirrorshades, so he's officially in the movement) and John Kessel (famously one of the leaders of the alternative "humanist" movement of the mid-'80s, though he's also collaborated with Kelly several times). So, if we're dogmatic about labels (and no one could be more so than CP's zine manifesto, Cheap Truth), Rewired has a view from both inside and outside the CP fold.

There are sixteen stories in Rewired, and you've probably heard of all of them: Charles Stross's "Lobsters," Cory Doctorow's "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth," Greg Egan's "Yeyuka," David Marusek's "The Wedding Album," and so on. It does collect some of the best, most innovative SF stories of the past decade (though some of them have been anthologized a few times already, and heavy Year's Best readers might just have all of them already).

But what makes Rewired even more fascinating, and indispensable to any serious SF reader, is the excerpts from a long correspondence between Kessel and CP manifestoist Bruce Sterling, starting in 1986 and running through the early '90s. They run in-between stories for most of the book, and there's some good stuff there. I do wish we had gotten, instead, all of the letters in whole and in chronological order, but I'm a ridiculous completest anyway, so of course I'd say that.

Rewired is one of the best imaginable anthologies covering what SF is doing right now; if you've lost touch (or know someone who has), this is a great way to get back up to speed.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Hang Up Your Links!

Today's ComicMix links:
And I also have a review, for the first time in a while. Graphic Novel Review: Shock! Horror! covers a graphic novel called Angel Skin and the second edition of Graphic Classics: Bram Stoker.

Is Nothing Sacred? by Gahan Wilson

Gahan Wilson is one of the great cartoonists of the 20th century, period. (And he's still around, so he counts for this one as well.) This is a large-format collection of his cartoons, published by St. Martin's Press/Marek in 1982, which I found, for some inexplicable reason, as if it were a new book at the Strand earlier this summer.

The title cartoon of this book, as I think I've said before, is one of my favorites as well -- it's a bit less ghoulish and dark than usual for Wilson, but still has his distinctive wit.

There are very few single-panel cartoonists who are completely themselves, owing nothing to any others. Besides Wilson, John Callahan is the only one who comes immediately to mind. Sure, there are other fine single-panel cartoonists, even great cartoonists, but they're all working in veins established by others, and doing work that others could do, more or less. The few really original talents, like Wilson and Callahan (maybe Sam Gross is a third), create cartoons that no one else would have ever thought of. And, in Wilson's case, he can draw them in a way no one else would have thought of. He's a treasure, if a creepy, uneasy-making one, and I hope he lives and works well past a hundred.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Personal Thoughts on Robert Jordan

Last night I did the just-the-facts obituary thing, as if I was some sort of official news outlet or something. (Sometimes it's rituals that get us through life, after all.) But today it's time to thank Jordan as a reader and an editor.

I think I met him once, in passing -- he won (or was runner-up for) one of the last SFBC Book of the Year Awards, when there was still a physical award to give and we actually had a party to celebrate it. I was a young, shy, very junior editor-person, and he was *ROBERT*JORDAN*, so I don't think I even said hello to him. But that was it; I didn't know him, or have any direct dealing with him.

All I did was sell his books. That's all. I got to pass along something those readers wanted, to hear back from them about the bits they loved or hated, and to get the letters complaining that the books were too long and too slow and (without pausing for metaphorical breath) wondering how soon the next one could possibly be published.

He almost single-handedly remade the field of epic fantasy in his own image in the early '90s. And he didn't do it through manifestos or winning awards or arm-twisting, but through writing books that more and more people loved and wanted more of. That's the best kind of writer, and the world is a smaller, darker place now without him.

Farewell, Jim Rigney, and thanks for everything.

Linkety Link

Today's ComicMix links:
Andrew's Links: Bikini Jeans

Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball

You sometimes see discussions of "literary quality" as if it were a stamp that a work either bears or doesn't. This is wrong, of course: it's a continuum, from the most tone-deaf of plodding stories through so-called transparent prose up to high flights of poetry. Unfortunately, some writers are not content to stop there, and shove the boundaries of literary prose too far in the other direction. For example, this paragraph from the first page of Samedi the Deafness, a first novel by my fellow Vassar alumnus Jesse Ball:
It was early yet, and the clouds that had gathered near and made of themselves rain all through the night were now intent on going elsewhere. But it takes the minds of clouds a long time to effect their prodigious actions; the immediate result was solely a sort of paleness, a lightening of countenance.
We have here the hints of a Winnie the Pooh-ish tweeness in the anthropomorphization of clouds, and more than a little writing that is incredibly aware of how "fine" it is. We also have a book that we can tell will not be satisfied merely to have us read it; we will have to grapple with it, to hack through thickets of metaphors (and metaphoric thickets) to get to whatever it prizes at its heart.

So we have here a story told in overly-poetic language, a story that wants us to consider it more than just a story. But what kind of story is it? James Sim is a man in his early thirties, a mnemonist in a USA (presumably; there's a Washington, D.C., but I don't believe the overall polity is named in the book) very much like, if not identical to, our own. He finds a dying man one day in a park and the man tells him of a conspiracy, run by a man named Samedi, to do something horrible very soon.

Sim investigates the man's claims, and, of course, finds that the conspiracy is real. He is locked away in a strange hospital-cum-private home to await the horrible thing. But this is not so low a thing as novel of suspense -- this is a literary novel, so what little violence happens is distanced, and the hero is never in physical danger. The book is structured into seven days, each one (until the very short seventh) longer than the last, and what Sim mostly does with his time is wander about and talk to the same people over and over again. The hospital, he learns, is for liars, so he is lied to over and over again, though, for a supposedly smart guy, he never seems to remember that they are liars.

There are books that are called "dream-like," and I bet some reviewers will use that phrase to describe Samedi the Deafness. But, to my mind, what this novel is really like is some old Infocom text adventure game -- Samedi the Zorkness, perhaps. Our hero wanders aimlessly through endless, undifferentiated corridors and rooms, searching for clues or a way out. He meets the same people over and over again, who tell him different things and try to enlist him in their plots against each other. At defined intervals, the scene ends and our hero wakes up in his room again, with the number of possible moves before the game inevitably ends reduced yet further.

I shouldn't be too harsh. Samedi is written in fine prose, and knows how not to overstay its welcome. It doesn't have a lot of plot, but it does have an amount sufficient for the story it's telling. And I won't even get into the oddness of the evil plot; this isn't a genre book, so the mechanism for the villain's horror-machine is to be taken as a McGuffin, rather than explained through anything as down-market as science. It's a book for people who read literature rather than those who read fiction, though they might think they're dangerously slumming with Samedi's thriller-plot summary. I do hope that Ball, having gotten this out of his system, will turn to actually writing a story, but that might be too much to expect.