Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy Pointless Instant in the Earth's Orbit Day

It's New Year's Eve, which is about the silliest holiday imaginable, but have fun if you happen to be out celebrating. (And if you're both out celebrating and reading the Internet, something is really wrong with you.)

I also wanted to mention that, as usual, I really feel for my wife and all stay-at-home parents whenever I have vacation time that corresponds with vacations for my kids. For instance, today was the first day in nearly a week when I wasn't setting off on some project, and I thought I'd be able to get caught up on my blogging, maybe even write a review for ComicMix (they probably think I fell off the edge of the Earth, by this point), and so on.

Uh-uh. Nothing doing. I had a couple of errands with the boys in the morning (through what looked at that point like a major snowstorm, but fizzled later) -- off to drop off a Cub Scout shirt for sewing, and then some grocery shopping, but then the day would be free! Well, then I had to get them lunch. And then somehow I was playing LEGO Batman with Thing 2, and then I had to start getting dinner ready, and before I knew it the sun was down.

That's almost twelve hours just gone -- I did shovel some snow, and do dishes, and various other household stuff...but I didn't even get to the laundry. I make a lousy housewife, I'll tell you that.

I've been on vacation for most of two weeks, and have very little to show for it -- I don't even feel as rested as I think I should. At this rate, I'll be happy to get back to work on Monday, so I can Get Things Done. (Maybe that's the point of vacations...)

Incoming Books: 30 December

Yesterday, as the end of a string of busy days -- Monday I went with my brother to his apartment in Brooklyn to do some pre-move packing and dispersing; Sunday was Xmas #5 up with my extended family in Albany, NY; Saturday was a trip into NYC to the Ripley's Believe It Or Not please-let's-not-call-it-a-museum in honor of Thing 2's eighth birthday that day; Friday was something else I've forgotten; and Thursday was the annual Day of Three Christmases -- I took Thing 1 off to my nominal favorite bookstore, the Montclair Book Center.

(I say "nominal," because their new stock is looking a bit thin this season -- cutting back is probably a great strategy in this market, and I want to see them stick around another few decades, but it does make poking through the store somewhat less exciting. But they're happy to do special orders, as I know because they're in the middle of processing a big one for me.)

Thing 1 got Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and we picked up Ripley's Believe It or Not: The Remarkable...Revealed for Thing 2 (who was with The Wife, handing the other half of the day's appointments).

And, for myself, I found:

Christopher Buckley's Supreme Courtship -- I've been reading his books for a couple of decades now, and we seem to be much the same kind of Republican, which warms what few cockles my heart has. This is another humorous novel about politics -- it's probably not as good as his sublime Thank You for Smoking, but what is?

Two more of the recent Penguin repackagings of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels: Doctor No and For Your Eyes Only. I'm toying with the idea of gathering the set and then reading them all straight through (something like my Loren Estleman binge in 2007).

Another Stewart O'Nan novel, The Night Country, because I was so impressed by The Speed Queen and Last Night at the Lobster (I was just thinking about Lobster recently, actually, when The Wife and I had an early lunch at a Red Lobster on the boys' last full day of school) -- and even though I already have O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying on the to-be-read shelf.

Lemony Snicket's The Lump of Coal, a holiday tale that I read this afternoon. (It didn't take long.)

And State by State, a collection of essays about each of the fifty states by a wide variety of distinguished contributors, all edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey. It's the kind of book I think I want to read, even though I secretly suspect it will still be sitting on my shelf, uncracked, five years from now. We all need books like that, though: books for every plausible person we might be in the near future.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Pratchett Is Knighted

(I decided that the title I was going to use -- Sir Terry of Discworld -- was so obvious that at least a dozen blogs would be using it.)

Terry Pratchett, beloved author and all that, has been knighted for "service to literature" in the Queen's New Year's Honors list.

Congratulations to Terry, though I do hope he doesn't rush off to slay any dragons.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky

This is another book that's already gone back to the library, so I'll be brief and nonspecific.

Here Comes Everybody is from the school of nonfiction books -- popularized most obviously in recent years by Malcolm Gladwell -- that take one particular idea and explain how that idea Changes Everything. (Variations include How This Changed Everything, How This Will Change Everything, and Why You Didn't Notice That Everything Changed, You Silly Person You.) Shirky's idea is social networking, and he generally argues here that it's in the process of Changing Everything, with the usual consequences (vastly easier and quicker formation of groups, leading to vastly more groups of every imaginable kind, the death of the old-fashioned expert and the death of pretty much every knowledge-based profession everywhere in the world).

Well, there is one profession that apparently will continue: that of being a consultant to various organizations on the subject of social networking. Oddly enough, this is the work Shirky himself does. I shouldn't be too snarky: that kind of consultancy only lasts as long as an idea is new and not well-understood. So it's a job just for today, not for a long time -- in much the same way that Shirky declares that my job and yours will also be crowd-sourced, sooner or later.

(Shirky is relentlessly positive, but the same facts and tendencies could easily be spun as a horrible dystopia -- that people will just stop listening to experts of every kind, that only the loudest, most strident voices on any subject will be heard, and that pressure groups of every stripe will be able to spring up instantly and do nearly whatever they want. And, of course, that all work involving thought and discrimination will be done by masses of whoever has the most time and interest -- a world ruled by Wikipedia editors.)

Here Comes Everybody is a major book on the way things are changing now, even though I expect Shirky's farther-out projections will never happen. (The whole point of "If This Goes On..." extrapolations is that things never just go on -- they change and mutate and merge with their counter-forces.) Shirky is a pleasant guide through this world, even if he does act a bit too much as a cheerleader for my liking.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/27

For a week with a major holiday in it, last week saw a surprising amount of books arrive in my mail. And, as always, I post on Monday mornings about what came in the week before, to cover books that I might not get to review. Here's what I saw last week:

To lead off this week, there's a new edition of Jo Walton's unique novel Tooth and Claw -- and you'll note that I don't call things "unique" all that often, but this really is. Tooth and Claw is very much like a Victorian novel, like a novel by Anthony Trollope, to be more precise, except that the complicated unwritten strictures of that society are here transformed into the actual physical requirements of the characters...who are all dragons. It's quite odd, and utterly satisfying -- Tooth and Claw won the World Fantasy Award when it was originally published in hardcover in 2003, and almost immediately fell out of print. (Since the WFA, sadly, is not one of the awards that cause the recipient to immediately be the center of a shower of gold and accolades.) But it's back now, in a very classy trade paperback hitting stores January 6th -- so you have another chance to try one of the least likely novels you'll ever hear about.

From Aurora Publishing, I got one book each from their three main lines -- The Manzai Comics, Vol. 1 by Atsuko Asano and Hizuru Imai, from the flagship Aurora imprint. It's the story of a comedy duo in contemporary Japan -- from what I understand, the standard in Japan isn't a single standup comedian, but a Burns-and-Allen (or Abbot-and-Costello, or Laurel-and-Hardy, etc.) style duo act. It looks like our hero is the younger, smaller, less confident member of the duo, who just wants to be an "ordinary person" -- Japanese protagonists are obsessed with not standing out in any way from anyone, whatsoever -- but will, of course, be dragged against his will into the act. Manzai Comics is the first of what may end up being a long series, and it's in stores January 15th.

From Aurora's Deux imprint comes Take Me To Heaven by Nase Yamato, a yaoi tale of love between two highschool boys, driven together by the ghosts and spirits that torment one of them., different. This will also be in stores January 15th.

And from Aurora's Luv Luv imprint, I saw Make More Love & Peace by Takane Yonetani, the sequel to Make Love & Peace (which I reviewed a few months ago for ComicMix). It's the further adventures exploits of college student Ayame and her police-detective boyfriend Koichi, with lots of sex and probably a fair bit of woman-in-danger. It will also be available January 15th.

The third book in Osamu Tezuka's manga series Black Jack is coming to American shelves on January 20th. It's the story of an outlaw doctor who charges outrageous fees but can cure anything, it's reportedly Tezuka's most popular series among Japanese adults, and I reviewed the first two books for ComicMix, if you want to know more.

The Vampire Agent, by Patricia Rosemoor & Marc Paoletti, is the second in a new contemporary fantasy series (after The Last Vampire) by a paranormal romance writer and an ex-pyrotechnician/advertising copywriter. It looks more military and gritty than most of the books in this subgenre, for those looking for more high-powered weaponry to face off against their vampires. And it's hitting bookstores tomorrow.

One of the more surprising packages arrived this week from the Philippines -- it contained several works of SFF and comics from that country, all in English, and all things I'd never heard of before. It might not be a small world, precisely, but it's getting easier and easier to find out about things from the other end of the world.

First up is The Kite of Stars and Other Stories by Dean Francis Alfar, published by an outfit called Anvil in a paperback second edition in 2008. It's his first collection, with sixteen stories originally appearing in Philippine venues that I don't recognize and in places like Strange Horizons. It doesn't seem to be immediately available in the USA, but it could be ordered directly from the publisher.

Also by Alfar is the novel Salamanca published in 2006 by Ateneo de Manila University Press, which I suspect could be labeled magic realist without offending too many sensibilities.

And then there's Philippine Speculative Fiction III, which was edited by Dean Francis Alfar & Nikki Alfar. This is copyright 2007, and was published by Kestrel IMC. It collects twenty-one stories by writers you've probably never heard of -- not that this is a bad thing -- stories of horror, fantasy, SF, and similar things from Philippine writers and parts even further away.

Still poking through the box from the Philippines -- this stuff is fascinating! -- I find the four issues of a comics series called Elmer by Gerry Alanguilan. It seems to be about a talking chicken, but it doesn't look silly -- the art is particularly precise and matter-of-fact.

Also in comics form are two collections of local supernatural detective stories (or do I mean urban fantasy?) -- Trese: Murder on Balete Drive and Trese: Unreported Murders. They're by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo, and look dark and enticing. There's a blog dedicated to the series, but it doesn't look like the books are easy to buy on this side of the Pacific.

And last from the Philippine box is a graphic novel, Martial Law Babies by Arnold Arre. It's a big fat thing, nearly 300 pages, and looks to be the kind of book that's both a story about particular people and at the same time the story of a generation.

Back to books published on this continent, there's A World of Letters by Nicholas A. Basbanes, a history of the first hundred years of the Yale University Press (up to this year). And that's already the first thing I've learned from this book -- I wouldn't have thought that Yale UP was that young, since the university itself was founded in 1701. I've read a couple of Basbanes's books about books and collectors eagerly, and I do have an interest in how publishing houses operate, so this looks to be right up my alley. It was published in October -- by the Yale University Press, of course.

The best title I've seen in quite a while is The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, the new novel by Charlie Huston. Huston's the author of the Joe Pitt novels -- starting with Already Dead, tales of a very noirish vampire in contemporary vampire-gang-ridden Manhattan -- as well as other mysteries and, currently, the Moon Knight comics series. This is either a standalone or the first novel in a series -- it's quite possible that only time will tell which, too -- about a man who gets a job working as a death-scene cleaner. Web Goodhue is one of the guys who come in after the CSI team took their samples and ran back to their labs, after the insurance adjustors agreed to pay -- one of the guys who has to get two quarts of blood out of deep pile on an average working day. From what I've read of Huston's work, I'm pretty sure he's one of the very few writers who could pull that off. And the cover is bright yellow -- who can resist that? Mystical Arts is being published by Ballantine on January 13th.

And last for this week is the new Walter Jon Williams novel, This Is Not a Game. It's an extremely near-future SF novel set in the world of Alternate Reality Games -- the subtitle on the bound galley is "A Novel of Greed, Betrayal, and Social Networking." Williams is a fantastic writer who has never gotten the widespread success his books -- from Aristoi to Metropolitan to Days of Atonement -- deserved, so I hope this big book will finally put him over the top. It's coming from Orbit (US) in March as a hardcover, and I hope it will be one of the major books of 2009.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Tone Deaf

I do think that Borders will survive, but sometimes I do have to wonder if they really know what they're doing.

This morning, in my e-mail, I saw the header "Borders Closing, 40% Off Clearance Sale." It seemed awfully soon -- I thought they had more cash on hand than that -- but many retailers do go belly-up after the Christmas season, and this year was horrible at retail.

But then I opened the message, to see that Borders is closing one store -- and they decided to tell me, in New Jersey, that they're closing the store at 4750 Natomas Blvd. in Sacramento, California. Just in case I want to drop by for some deals, I guess.

A company that sends an e-mail to the entire country about one store closing, with a title that could be very easily misconstrued, is a company with some serious problems. Borders, I want you to succeed, but you'll have to do better than this.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Week of ComicMix

I only managed to get two posts up at ComicMix this week -- despite being on vacation all week, and only partly explained by the holidays. But these were they:

On Tuesday, I reviewed two books by Scott Morse -- Notes Over Yonder and Tiger!Tiger!Tiger!

And then yesterday, I had my usual Manga Friday column, covering Tomoko Noguchi's Object of Desire, Est Em's Red Blinds the Foolish, and Kazuto Okada's Sundome, Vol. 4.

More Information Than You Require by John Hodgman

This is the "sequel" to Hodgman's unexpectedly successful -- that phrase also applies to nearly everything Hodgman has done for the last two years, and good for him -- book The Areas of My Expertise (which I read a little over two years ago). In best commercial-publishing fashion, More Information Than You Require is not just a sequel; it's immediately the middle book of a trilogy, with That Is All to follow sometime in the indefinite future.

Hodgman appreciates his status -- as an occasional commentator on the Daily Show and as "the PC" in those ubiquitous, oddly-not-annoying-yet Apple commercials -- and that status is well-reflected in this book. (Right on the cover, he calls himself "a famous minor television personality," showing that not only does he get the joke, he's the one making the joke.)

I found More Information to be funnier and more entertaining than Areas was; it's full of little bits and pieces which are all a lot of fun separately and, cumulatively, just kept dragging me forward through the book. (Areas, on the other hand, I found mostly funny but had no trouble putting down -- More was the kind of book where I kept wanting to read just one more bit.)

I had to send More back to the library some time ago -- a fact which will make Hodgman hate me, if he deigns to note my existence, since he explicitly disdains libraries in More in a wonderfully humorous attempt to guilt all of his readers into buying their own copies -- so I can't quote chapter and verse, or even list the funniest bit from it. But it is a lot of fun, and I expect I'll buy it once it's available in trade paperback.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Three Old Books of Cartoons

I've been very lackadaisical about my movie & book reviews since the big family vacation back in early November -- I guess once I got off the bicycle, it was twice as hard to get back on it. (And, so far, being on vacation hasn't been helping, either.) This post, for example, was started a good month ago and left abandoned when I discovered that none of these three books had pre-existing cover scans on the Internet I could use. But this time I'll push to the end...I hope.

While I was in Charleston, I found my way into a nice used-books shop -- let's see if they're on the Internet...of course! Blue Bicycle Books -- and bought a small stack of things. I forgot to do an "Incoming Books" post as soon as I did -- unaccountably, since I'm usually so compulsive. And now I've come back home and those books have slipped off into the to-be-read piles.

But I can write about the three books of cartoons I read while I was still in Charleston (mostly while sitting in a not-heavily-trafficked booth during the Blackbaud Conference for Nonprofits). And why not? They're all old, and they're all cartoons, and that's enough for a connection.

They're all long out of print, without easily accessible covers online, but let's see if I can scan them for you.

What About Me?
by Edward Koren -- Koren was one of the quintessential, maybe the quintessential, New Yorker cartoonist of the '70s and early '80s, with his shaggy, hairy nonspecific creatures (and almost equally hairy and shaggy humans) talking about their feelings and relationships in High Self-Actualization. Like all artists who are so thoroughly of one era, it's a bit jarring to realize that he's still around -- a quick Google showed that he won a major art award in his native Vermont just last year, and that he's illustrated some children's books recently.

What About Me? is from 1989, collecting Koren's cartoons from the mid-to-late eighties -- that is, just as his work was beginning to seem slightly out-of-date instead of incisive. The shagginess of his characters wasn't the problem -- it was the shagginess of their thoughts. As the world changed, bit by bit, year by year, it stopped being an Edward Koren world and became a Bruce Eric Kaplan world. And, suddenly, all of those Koren characters saying things like "Is there someone here who is sensitive to the banking needs of women?" or "Daddy has to clear his head for a few minutes before he can deal with 'Babar'" -- both examples from this book -- looked creaky and old-fashioned. Koren's work isn't always all that touchy-feely, but he was always one of the mushier New Yorker cartoonists; his entries in what Thurber called the eternal battle between men and women are always set during eras of detente, if not downright peace.

Koren's characters are nearly always smiling; they're not quite smug -- they're much too self-questioning for that -- but they definitely believe in their own goodness and place in the world. And his work is funny in a similarly mild way: the punches he throws are all pulled, the criticisms are all constructive ones. A Koren cartoon would never go for the jugular. I'm surprised he didn't make a comeback earlier this decade, back when irony was dead -- Koren cartoons have only the mildest, most positive kinds of irony. So his work is pleasant -- especially those scratchy, looping drawings of smiling mouths and huge noses, like Muppets -- but there's not a whole lot more than that.

All Ends Up by S. Harris -- This is a collection of cartoons originally from American Scientist, published by a firm called William Kaufmann in 1980, with a foreword by Linus Pauling. Harris was the great cartoonist of science (and probably still is) -- before The Far Side, his work was the most commonly found on the doors of university offices, and it might be creeping back in front now, a decade after Gary Larson retired.

These are all science jokes, for an audience of scientists, so the bar is pretty high -- the captions are things like "I love hearing that lonesome wail of the train as the magnitude of the frequency of the wave changes due to the Doppler effect" and "You both have something in common. Dr. Rudolph has discovered a particle which nobody has ever seen, and Prof. Higbe has discovered a galaxy which nobody has ever seen." It can be, like all of Harris's work, a bit dry -- his cartoons tend to get a reaction of "that's funny" rather than an actual laugh.

But, especially at that point in his career, Harris had a line that was so loose that it threatened to collapse into one big scrawl on the page, so the pure joy of his drawings adds a lot to these cartoons.

Sick Sick Sick by Jules Feiffer -- I'm terribly ill-read in Feiffer; I've seen his stuff here and there (and read several of his recent books for children to my own sons), but I've never gone out of my way to catch up on his work. There was a small pile of old McGraw-Hill paperbacks of Feiffer at Blue Bicycle, and I ended up taking this one. It's a collection of some of his earliest work; the weekly cartoons that he drew for the Village Voice (and eventually for syndication, under the title Feiffer); it was Feiffer's first book, in 1958.

(The edition I got doesn't go back quite all that way, but it's a fourteenth printing of that original paperback, and is from sometime in the early '60s.)

Feiffer dug into the post-war anomie like no one else, and was able to make it universal -- what looked like the portrait of a very particular time fifty years ago now looks like just the modern human condition. (Especially when his characters say things like "What I wouldn't give to be a non-conformist like all those others" -- though their speeches are usually much longer and hard to summarize, full of self-doubt and recrimination, throttled longing and fear.) Sick Sick Sick -- this book, and the early years of Feiffer's weekly cartoon in general -- are a lot like Schulz's Peanuts of the same era -- with characters grown-up and worried about even more things, and able to talk about sex and fallout and Sputnik and office jobs directly, without codes or juvenilization.

(All of the cartoons in this book, and about six years more, are reprinted in the recent book Explainers, the first of a series that aims to collect all of the Feiffer cartoons, decade by decade.)

Quote of the Week

"I was like she was all he was all they were like we were all like ohmigod like totally we were like that was all they were all he was like she was like oh totally like ohmigod!"
- Parry Grip, channeling "Young Girl Talking About Herself"

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Where To Start With Michael Moorcock

It's Christmas Eve, so the Internet is fairly quiet. I'm at home, so I've been wrapping presents, making last-minute shopping trips, playing Lego Indiana Jones with my younger son, and doing similar activities instead of keeping up with my feeds and typing away at the various posts I have staring at me.

So, instead of a real post, here's something repurposed. The multifarious and unique James Nicoll asked the title question on rec.arts.sf.written sometime this past year, and here is how I (for one) responded:

If the someone is 11-16 and/or dresses entirely in black, the new Elric: The Stealer of Souls omnibus is great.

Someone with age and sophistication could start with Gloriana.

Some with age and sophistication but a lurking fondness for adventure fantasy might like The War Hound and the World's Pain.

A big fan of high literature might go for The Final Programme (though it's better if you've also read the early Elric books). [Note: It's currently available in the omnibus The Cornelius Quartet.]

The Brothel in Rosenstrasse is also excellent, and I've heard good things about Mother London (though I haven't read it yet).

The further reaches of the Eternal Champion saga are best left for later, if at all.