Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Lunacon Schedule

This year's Lunacon -- the New York City area local SF/Fantasy convention -- will be held the weekend of March 19th at its perfect home in the Hilton Rye Town up in Westchester county. I'll be there part of the time -- late Friday afternoon through sometime Saturday evening -- since I'm off for a family trip for most of that Sunday and Monday.

And, if you'll be there, you might see me on the following program items:
Comics as Ethical Literature
Friday, 9:00 PM - 10:00 PM
When people think of comics, they generally think of violence, superpowers, and big-busted women. However, is there is room in the genre for moral quandaries and ethical questions, wedged somewhere between the leather catsuits and the spandex uniforms? Is so, are they the domain of independent comics, or can major titles like X-Men and Superman address those issues, too? Which is more important--spreading a message or staying in business?
Alexandra Elizabeth Honigsberg, Hal Johnson [M], Andrew Wheeler, Alex Wittenberg

Don't Change a Thing!
Saturday, 12:00 PM - 1:00 PM
Some writers begin to reject editorial input when they become "big-names", or are suddenly able to sell sub-par work on name recognition alone. Often, the quality of their writing suffers for it. How do editors make writers better? Is it possible to self-edit successfully?
Peter Heck, Eddie Schneider, Josepha Sherman, Gordon Van Gelder, Andrew Wheeler [M]

The Economy and The Genre
Saturday, 4:00 PM - 5:00 PM
How has the economic situation affected the publishing industry, specifically, the sci-fi/fantasy genre? Where do we go next? Is there a solution beyond'wait for everything to get better?'
Jim Belfiore, Peter Liverakos [M], Susan Shwartz, Andrew Wheeler, Gordon Van Gelder

You Want to Do What With the What?
Saturday, 10:00 PM - 11:00 PM
Raunchy robotic romps, sybaritic shape-changing, time travel threesomes... you know you want to use that fictional technology/superpower for something kinky. When genre fiction invents some new ability for purposes of plot or flavor, they don't always envision all the possible... implications of that power. Which works have actually gone there? Which really should (or shouldn't). What would we do with that shiny new toy?

Amy Chused, Bill DeSmedt, Bruce Dykes, Ian Randal Strock [M], Andrew Wheeler
Alternatively, if you want to avoid me, the above schedule will also help suit your purposes.

Movie Log: Cold Souls

The greatest lines I've heard in a movie so far this year: "I still have five percent of my soul...I rented the soul of a Russian poet." Cold Souls is not exactly a comedy, but it has moments that made me cackle gleefully, and that's more than enough.

(The marketing for Cold Souls mostly proceeded under the assumption that it was a comedy, but I don't entirely agree -- I'd call it a dramedy, or a similar made-up term, like "seriocomic.")

Paul Giamatti plays...Paul Giamatti, a semi-famous American actor, who's preparing for a Broadway production of Uncle Vanya and having trouble. So, after hearing about a new company on Roosevelt Island that extracts people's souls and stores them -- via an article in The New Yorker, of course; how else would the New York elite learn about anything? -- he visits their offices and decides to deposit his soul.

That makes him happy -- well, happier; he's a depressive New York type and nothing will make him truly happy -- but it's hell on his acting. (There's a hilarious scene in which Giamatti hams it up so much that he seems to be channelling William Shatner.) He goes back to the soul place to try to work something out -- he doesn't want his own soul back, since that just made him morose, so he test-drives the soul of a Russian poet for a couple of weeks, which has its own problems.

That all is funny, but threaded through those scenes are the other side of the soul-storage business, with a female Russian courier (Dina Korzun as Nina) smuggling souls into the US, and hints of the economic pressures leading Russians to sell their souls (and the sad emptiness they feel without those souls). Giamatti's travails with his rented soul eventually lead to a collision with the other side of the movie, and a trip to Russia to track down his wayward soul. The I-can't-regulate-my-soul scenes resonate oddly with the souls-as-drug-trafficking scenes, and the movie doesn't entirely find an integrated point of view and sense of itself. (The figure who should be the nasty Russian crimeboss, head of the whole organization, turns out to be a slightly hotheaded legitimate businessman who's in thrall to his demanding bad-actress wife.)

So Cold Souls is a movie of parts, and not all of the parts entirely mesh with each other well. The dramatic stuff works pretty well, but the comedy kills. I suspect it was scripted to be more serious, and edited into its current form to emphasize the elements and scenes that were most successful -- but that's purely on the evidence of the movie itself. In any case, it's a decent independent movie that raises questions and themes that it decides it's not qualified to seriously examine, but that's OK -- a little ambition is a good thing, and knowing the limits of one's ambition is even better. For people who like their movies to be smart funny, this is definitely worth the time.
Listening to: My First Earthquake - Meat Pies
via FoxyTunes

Book-A-Day 2010 # 25 (2/28) -- Astro City: The Dark Age Book 1 by Busiek and Anderson

Astro City has been, for the past fifteen years, the premier "superheroes in a realistic world" comic, telling stories set in a world vaguely like a Platonic version of the DC Universe, where one writer guided everything forever and all of the stories worked and made sense. It's a deeply artificial secondary creation -- it exists primarily to "do it right," that is, to tell stories very much like the ones its audience imprinted on when they were young (and their favorite stories from later in their lives), smoothing out all of the rough edges of continuity and characterization. It was created by and has always been written by Kurt Busiek, with art always by Brent Anderson (here sporting the middle name Eric in the internal credits, possibly for page-design reasons) and covers always by Alex Ross. In short, Astro City has been the best example of superheroes classing it up available for the past decade, and the thing a thousand overgrown fourteen-year-olds have given to their Aunt Sallys to show that superheroes can be just as good as those Jacqueline Mitchard novels she reads.

For that reason, Astro City has attracted laudatory comments far beyond its actual merits. Yes, the Astro City stories have consistently shown a very high level of professionalism, and evinced all of the strengths of modern costumed-hero comics -- a sense of living, continuous history and possibility; a deep, textured world with caricatured versions of real-world concerns; a love of high adventure; and a bedrock assumption that Good will always triumph over Evil (and that it's always possible to know what those two abstractions are) -- but they are entirely hermetic stories, which make sense and are impressive only within the circle of mainstream superhero comics. (Somewhere out there, I know there's a Noh play creator who is the Kurt Busiek of his form, and all of us are about as interested in those works as most readers would be in Astro City.)

The Dark Age is planned to be the magnum opus of Astro City, the masterwork of the epitome of contemporary superheroes. And this book collects the first half of the story, the first two (of four) four-issue series, along with a short introduction from a teaser comic. (The second half of the story is still unfinished, two years after this book was published; the penultimate issue is scheduled to be released in about a month.) So this is big stuff, right?

But Astro City only intermittently focuses directly on the superheroes themselves, as if they were like the sun, too bright to look at directly. More often, Astro City ostensibly looks at "ordinary" people in this superhero world. (Unlike Brian Michael Bendis's Powers, which I looked at yesterday, Busiek knows enough to keep his ordinary people and his super people distinct and separate.) So this story is about two brothers, Charles and Royal Williams. It runs through the '70s and into the '80s, when the two men are in their twenties and thirties, with flashbacks to their youth. And the two men are black -- which feels more important and distinctive than it really should be.

Charles is a mediocre cop; Royal is a mediocre thief. [1] Both just want to get by without making any waves, without leaving any real impression on the world. Busiek's structure tries to contrast the worldviews of the two of them, but, really, they're nearly identical; the only real difference is that Charles thinks following the rules is more likely to lead to an easy, uncomplicated life. In the early parts of this story, they bounce off each other whenever they meet, arguing the way brothers do.

But they meet primarily in a bar -- a particular bar -- as if they were TV characters. They don't meet for dinner, or help each other move, or catch a movie on an afternoon off, or do anything else actual "ordinary" people do.

What they do do is talk about superheroes, all the time. The Dark Ages is not the story of Charles and Royal Williams; they're just a smokescreen. They're the frame through which Busiek tells yet another standard superhero tale -- the great hero (Silver Agent, the guy on the cover) is arrested for murdering a foreign leader, and tried in the shadow of Watergate. And there are a few invasions (alien and aquatic) along the way, plus the usual post-Silver Age plethora of costumed weirdos flying and leaping about, each of whom has to have at least a moment of fame here. All of the major events in Dark Age are caused by superpowered characters; the Williams brothers just get to react to things and stand around as people in skin-tight costumes throw four-color sparks at each other in the sky. Anything that happens to them -- and a few things do happen, here and there -- may look like the main plot, but it's really just a sideshow. Busiek knows what his audience wants, and it's not the closely-examined lives of two black brothers in the '70s.

For example, one major reveal concerns the death of their parents, back in 1959 when they were tweens. But what happened to them after that? Who raised these two boys to men? What aunt or cousin or grandmother fed and clothed and housed them for the second half of their childhood? You'll look in vain to find out; that's ordinary-people thinking, and it gets muscled out of Astro City to have more cutaway scenes of the First Family battling a dragon from the earth's core, or Street Angel moping about how emo he's gotten lately.

Astro City is a superhero Trojan Horse: it pretends to celebrate the lives of normal people in a superhero world, but it actually hammers home one lesson over and over: only power matters. Only colorful costumes make you interesting. Only the big and flashy and superhuman is worth looking at. And the thinness of the Williams brothers' lives proves that point over and over.

If you like superhero comics, and have been reading them for twenty years, Astro City is likely to be right up your alley. But if you're in the habit of reading anything else, you might find it leaves you unsatisfied, luring you into that alley with the promise of depth and revealing only a pretty mural of two men in funny suits punching each other.

[1] I'd planned to have the iconic Edmund Burke quote here -- you know, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" -- to emphasize how much of a lazy cop Charles was, but I've come to believe the problem isn't that he's unwilling to take a stand, it's that, in Busiek's world, only the things that superheroes do actually matter. (And, yes, I know that quote is only attributed to Burke and has not been found in his writings.)

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Melnyk - Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) (feat. Sara Berg) (Kate Bush cover)
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Incoming Books: 27 February

The Wife has watched two different productions of Persuasion this week -- the recent BBC miniseries (rerun on some channel), and the mid-90s movie -- and so she asked me to get her a copy of the book to read. Since she's interested in reading a book only about once every seven years these days, I went out of my way to help her -- first checking my own shelves (to no luck: I have a Sense and Sensibility and a Mansfield Park, and possibly a Northanger Abbey half-lost somewhere) and then searching the shelves on the usual library trip this afternoon (also to no luck).

So I finally just ran out to the local Borders after dinner to buy the thing -- it's available in several paperback editions for cheap, and I got the Penguin Classics -- but ended up coming home with a few books for myself as well. (Isn't that always the way?)

The first thing I found was a two-year old Peter Robinson novel, Friend of the Devil, near the front among the remainders. I still haven't read the previous book in this series -- Piece of My Heart, on my shelves somewhere -- and this one has the tagline "a novel of suspense" on the cover, which is generally a red flag to me. But I've liked the Alan Banks novels quite a bit -- particularly the late '90/early aughts books -- so I was willing to pay a remainder price to have this on my shelves (and, I hope, read someday). (I reviewed an early book in this series, The Hanging Valley, back in 2007, but my other readings in this series all predate this blog.)

Then I wandered over to the comics section -- they tend to call it "cartoons" in a bookstore, and shackle it to humor, to keep it distinct from the "graphic novels" and "manga" sections across the store, similarly shackled together, but I have hopes that some day the lands of comics will be united in book-store commerce -- to find the new Pearls Before Swine treasury edition, Pearls Sells Out, by Stephan Pastis as always. I've stopped buying as many reprint books of newspaper strips over the past few years -- partly because the strips are all up online, partly due to ever-shrinking shelf space, and partly due to worldweariness -- but I'll keep buying Pastis's treasuries as long as he keeps including a lot of commentary and other ancillaries in them.

And then I did a search to see where Sexually, I'm More of a Switzerland would be...and that sent me right back to humor, where I just was. Sexually is the second collection of personal ads from the London Review of Books, edited, like the first one (They Call Me Naughty Lola) was, by David Rose. I found the first book a lot of fun, and so I was willing to actually pay money for this one!

(And I also picked up a copy of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox earlier in the day, during the library visit I alluded to above. I've read several Dahl books -- and still have The Witches and Over to You and possibly his complete stories somewhere in the unread shelves -- but I liked the movie, and this book is so short I can whip through it in half a day next week. So I will.)
Listening to: Gram Rabbit - American Hookers
via FoxyTunes

Bonus Saturday Quote: Those Damn Pringles

"Are the zombies in The Crazies real zombies? Maybe, maybe not. Is there an agreed definition of what is a zombie and how they get that way? Not that I know of. I think zombies are defined by behavior and can be 'explained' by many handy shortcuts: the supernatural, radiation, a virus, space visitors, secret weapons, a Harvard education and so on. I suppose it would be a 'spoiler' if I revealed why the Crazies are on the lurch, but come on, does it matter? What if I revealed they got that way because of, oh, say, eating Pringles? Would that spoil things for you? What difference does it make? All that matters is that they got to be zombies somehow. Before that, they were your friends and neighbors. Then they started in on the damn Pringles."
- Roger Ebert, reviewing yet another zombie movie

Book-A-Day 2010 # 24 (2/27) -- Powers: Cosmic by Bendis and Oeming

There's very little in the world of modern comics that can compare to Powers as an object lesson in the corrosiveness of sensation. This series -- written by a then-up-and-coming Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming -- began in 2000 with a simple, flexible premise: the work of ordinary, normal police detectives in a world where superbeings flew and fought. Of course, anyone who knows "superhero" comics at all could tell where that would have to lead eventually.

The first big reveal was that one of the two main characters -- square-jawed beefcake Detective Christian Walker -- had been a powered hero, but alas! he had lost his powers, in the kind of permanent event that lasts in most comics until the next big crossover.

Then the readers learned that Walker was not just a superhero, he was an immortal Eternal Champion-esque super-superhero, battling evil (or at least a guy with a red stripe in his hair) through the ages. Sure, everyone has hidden depths, but these were very particularly gimmicky mainstream comic-book hidden depths.

Through all that, Walker's diminutive partner Deena Pilgrim -- she's the "spitfire," with the spiky short hairdo to telegraph it -- was fully, almost stubbornly human, without any secret identities or mysterious parents who raised her with the secrets of the mystic Sh'a'titar martial arts. But then she had her own run-in with power -- as is all too typical for a female comics character, she was captured, raped, and dominated -- and she came out of it with...well, call it a spark. I'm sure Bendis would.

Along the way, the premise of Powers shifted by small degrees from "normal cops in a superhero world" to something like "every protagonist of a comic book will eventually develop superpowers," which is much less interesting and novel. And Cosmic -- the tenth collection of the series -- completes the process, turning Walker into this world's cheap rip-off of Green Lantern.

(This transition has been annoying me for some time, as you might glean from my reviews of volumes one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine.)

Bendis and Oeming still do a lot of things right -- or do them distinctively and non-derivatively, which is more important -- so I'm able to swallow my bile at fucking immortal guardian-of-the-goddamn-galaxy Walker, but it's annoying to have such a big slab of standard superhero cheese in a comic that promised to be something more particular and real. (Of course, one could argue that Bendis is just substituting superhero cliches for crime-fiction cliches, as he's running out of the latter, and I have some sympathy for that point of view. But crime-fiction cliches are vastly more underused in comics to begin with, and give much more scope for stories we haven't seen in panel form before.) Bendis has settled down his dialogue from the clipped Mamet-isms of the early issues, and it sounds real and vital. Oeming can handle the big superhero freak-outs -- and there's a huge one smack-dab in the middle of this book -- but he's better at the smaller scenes of characters talking to or at each other, and there's still plenty of those.

Looking back on it, Cosmic doesn't have a strong plot of its own other than "Walker gets superpowers like we've all been hoping!!!!1!!!eleventy!!!" Pilgrim's actions in a previous collection are coming back to haunt her, in the form of a creepy Internal Affairs officer that Bendis and Oeming might be hinting has powers of her own. But the main plot here is: some superhero gets killed by accident, Walker gets his toys, the guy who accidentally killed him commits suicide, and a whole lot of background characters do stand-up non-comedy.

So Cosmic is a piece of middle, a slice of sausage from a continuing story, not something that stands on its own. That's not fatal -- certainly not in the world of mainstream comics, where nothing has been allowed to end for seventy years -- but it's another ding in a vehicle that once was so shiny and exciting. I imagine I'll see what happens next, since I'm still two collections behind, but I might have to bail on Powers if it turns into Walker fighting alien invaders while Pilgrim assassinates criminals and then feels bad about it.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Josh Ritter - Harrisburg (solo acoustic)
via FoxyTunes

Friday, February 26, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 23 (2/26) -- Grandville by Bryan Talbot

Real unpredictability is a rare thing in any creator, and something to be prized. And, since Bryan Talbot has followed up the almost indescribable Alice in Sunderland with the only slightly more explicable Grandville -- which otherwise has absolutely nothing in common with Alice -- it's fair to say that none of us have any clue what he'll do next.

Grandville is, if one absolutely must encapsulate it, a police thriller. With international political implications that echo 9/11. In a steampunk alternate world where England just emerged from the Napoleonic French imperial boot a generation ago, after a bloody insurrection. Where all of the characters are anthropomorphic animals. (With a few human "doughface" incidental characters -- they're a minor, non-citizen breed apparently native only to France.) I think that covers it.

Detective Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard is the large badger on the cover, a brilliant, dashing, and superbly accomplished investigator. He and his assistant, Detective Ratzi (no points for guessing his species), are investigating the violent death of a British spy -- whom LeBrock immediately realizes was murdered by a French assassin squad to prevent his report from reaching British authorities.

So LeBrock and Ratzi head straight to Paris -- also called Grandville, for no reason other than pure center-of-the-world reasons that I could discern -- on the inevitable cross-channel railway bridge. They find the expected French superiority, arrogance, stonewalling, and rudeness -- which soon escalates into violence. Clearly, someone doesn't want LeBrock to get to the bottom of this case.

For all of the rococo trappings, this is a old-fashioned (and mildly predictable) adventure tale, full of derring-do, hair's-breadth escapes, battles against ridiculous odds, and perfidious enemies bent on destroying everything that LeBrock has sworn to protect. It's dashing and exciting and thrilling, an excellent genre exercise -- but not much more than that. (I was mildly disappointed to see that LeBrock's love interest was another badger, for example -- I was hoping Talbot's take on anthropomorphism wouldn't be as speciesist as the usual.)

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Josh Ritter - Harrisburg (solo acoustic)
via FoxyTunes

Quote of the Week: Pasts

"I am forty-five years old. By even the most conservative estimate, it has been nearly a quarter of a century since I climbed eagerly aboard this one-way rocket to Death in Adulthood and left the planet of my childhood forever in my starry wake. I know this. My grandparents, my boyhood bedroom furniture, a miniature schnauzer of admirable character named Fritz, the dazed and goofy splendor of bicentennial America: I will never see any of these or a million other things again. And yet always lurking somewhere in the back of my mind is the unshakable, even foundational knowledge -- for which certainty is too conscious a term -- that at some unspecified future date, by unspecified means, I will return to those people and to those locales. That I am going back.

No, that's false. The delusion is not really that I believe or trust that I will be returning one day to the planet of childhood; it's that the world I left behind so long ago is still there, somewhere, to be returned to; that it continues to exist, sideburns, Evel Kneivel, Spiro T. Agnew, and all, like some alternate-time-line Krypton that never exploded, just on the other side of the phantom-zone barrier that any determined superman would know how to pierce. When I watch a film or a television show from the period and see again the workingmen wearing short-sleeved shirts with neckties, or the great wide slabs of Detroit automobiles, or the blue mailboxes with the red tops, or when I happen to hear from some random radio the DeFranco Family singing "Heartbeat (It's a Love Beat)," I do not think merely, Oh, that's right, I remember that or the more pathetic I wish I could go back there again. What I feel is something more like gratitude, a sense of relief, the way you feel when you wake from a dream in which your beloved has died, and the world is grief and winter, and then you find her warm and snoring in the bed beside you."
- Michael Chabon, "Normal Time," pp.177-178 in Manhood for Amateurs

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 22 (2/25) -- Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain! by Scott Adams

The book I have in front of me is doubly disposable: first, it's a collection of Scott Adams's blog posts, which are all still available online for free (though not in this particular organization, nor handily bound between covers). Second, what I read was an advance review copy -- they were being given out by the stacksfull at BEA back in 2007, and, hey, free stuff, right? -- so this physical manifestation was designed to be used by reviewers (like me) and publishing people (also like me) before publication (which took place in October 2007, meaning I'm very slow).

One of the current iron laws of publishing -- there are always several, which are guaranteed to be true right up to the moment when they don't work anymore -- is that any sufficiently popular blog will eventually become a book. A similar law states that anyone successful enough at some other art form will eventually blog for at least a little while. Add those two facts to the engineer's obsessiveness of Scott Adams -- yes, I know he was never actually an engineer, which makes it even more humorous that he's so stereotypically one -- and you can derive the Dilbert Blog from Dilbert, and, then, this book.

Stick to Drawing Comics collects somewhere around 150-200 short pieces by Adams, all of which were originally blog posts. As usual -- and as is common with his engineer type -- he's most interesting when writing about minutia, and most quirky when tackling the great problems of mankind. (Engineers stereotypically think that everything in the world can be fixed with only the tools they have at hand and simple logic; this is one reason why engineers are never ever allowed to run anything larger than the communal lunch.) Adams is a deeply quirky individual, and knows it, which is both endearing and occasionally offputting. He's not nearly as arrogant as I would be if I were as successful as he is, either. He also both has a skewed view of the entire world and is very good at one-liners, which makes reading short essays by him very enjoyable; in general, the longer pieces in this book are the less successful ones.

The only reason to buy this book would be if you want to read the Dilbert Blog in the smallest room of your house and don't have a smartphone or laptop that would make that comfortable; it's purely a port of the blog, without any new content that I could discern. (OK, there is a five-page introduction, but you could read that standing by the shelf in Borders or via a certain online retailer's Search Inside the Book feature.) Even better, the Dilbert Blog has new content -- not available in this two-year-old book -- regularly. So, once again, new media rules. But, if you happened to get a copy of this book free at a major book-industry trade show, it's definitely entertaining enough to be worth reading.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Harvey Danger - Cream And Bastards Rise
via FoxyTunes

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 21 (2/24) -- Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon

Most men -- the ones who are serious readers to begin with, I mean -- hit a point in their middle years when they turn away from fiction for non-fiction. Some get a worse case than others: a few find themselves unable to read anything but military history, or something similarly solid and bluntly factual. I don't have it quite that bad, but I have read both this book -- a nonfictional fix-up of Chabon's Details columns (and a few other, related essays)-- and his other nonfiction collection Maps and Legends without having yet gotten around to his major novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Given my free choice, these days I'm choosing prose about things that are ostensibly true much more than I was used to just a few years ago.

Manhood for Amateurs collects thirty-two of those pieces from Details, plus works originally published in Vogue, Swing, Allure, and The New York Times (one each from the paper proper and its Sunday Magazine). There's also one lone new work, proving the instinct of "adding something new for the collection" is not restricted to the SFF world. All of the pieces are autobiographical to one degree or other -- hence the subtitle "The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son" -- and are organized into ten loosely thematic section. (So loosely thematic, in fact, that I would have to spend no little space working out precisely what the themes of each one were.)

Chabon is a thoughtful, careful writer who works hard to use the precisely right words and sentences to say what he means; reading his essays is a joy, with many small bolts of lightning as the reader recognizes emotions and situations and lives he has lived -- or could have lived.

Look, here's one example, from an essay about manhood called "Faking It":
This is and essential element of the business of being a man: to flood everyone around you in a great radiant arc of bullshit, one whose source and object of greatest intensity is yourself. To behave as if you have everything firmly under control even when you have just sailed your boat over the falls. "To keep your head." wrote Rudyard Kipling in his classic poem "If," which articulated the code of high-Victorian masculinity in whose fragmentary shadow American men still come of age, "when all about you are losing theirs"; but, in reality, the trick of being a man is to give the appearance of keeping your head when, deep inside, the truest part of you is crying out, Oh, shit!
If you're a man, you know that feeling; you've been there. Chabon is equally penetrating about what it means to be a father, to be a good or bad lover (boyfriend, husband, man). And I can't describe it any better than to just give you another example, the beginning of the essay "Th Memory Hole":
Almost every school day, at least one of my four children comes home with art: a drawing, a painting, a piece of handicraft, a construction-paper assemblage, an enigmatic apparatus made from pipe cleaners, sparkles, and clay. And almost every bit of it ends up in the trash. My wife and I have to remember to shove the things down deep, lest one of the kids stumble across the ruin of his or her laboriously stapled paper-plate-and-dried-bean maraca wedged in with the junk mail and the collapsed packaging from a twelve-pack of squeezable yogurt. But there is so much of the stuff; we don't know what else to do with it. We don't toss all of it. We keep the good stuff -- or what strikes us, in the Zen of that instant between scraping out the lunch box and sorting the mail,m as good. As worthier somehow: more vivid, more elaborate, more accurate, more sweated over. A crayon drawing that fills the entire sheet of newsprint from corner to corner, a lifelike smile on the bill of a penciled flamingo. We stack the good stuff in a big drawer, and when the drawer is finally full, we pull out the stuff and stick it in a plastic bin that we keep in the attic. We never revisit it. We never get the children's artwork down and sort through it with them, the way we do with photo albums, and say "That's how you used to draw curly hair" or "See how you made your letter E's with seven crossbars?" I'm not sure why we're saving it except that getting rid of it feels so awful.
Chabon's scope here may seem small and limited, and I suppose that's true. It's only of interest to readers who are parents or children, spouses or partners, men or women. Only for people who live in the world today and look around them. Only for us. It's a book I expect to come back to many times, and I hope Chabon continues to write non-fiction and collect it now and then -- and, who knows?, maybe I'll finally dive further into his fiction one of these years.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: My Brightest Diamond - Inside a Boy
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 20 (2/23) -- Mother, Come Home by Paul Hornschemeier

I had the entirely wrong impression of Hornshemeier's work before reading this book. The first thing I saw of his was the cover of his short-comics collection Let Us Be Perfectly Clear, with its capering ghost-figure and balloony cover font, so I mentally slotted him in with the artsy goofball crowd -- cartoonists like Rick Altergott, Tim Hensley, and Sam Henderson. I enjoy that kind of work occasionally, but only in small doses, and I rarely search it out -- so I filed away Hornshemeier as someone I probably wouldn't like all that much, and ignored him for a while.

However, even a slow learner like me can be convinced, so -- after seeing praise for Hornshemeier's first graphic novel Mother, Come Home many places -- I finally broke down and read the thing. And I have to say that Hornshemeier's work is absolutely nothing like I thought it would be.

Mother, Come Home is the story of a young boy, Thomas Tessier, and his middle-aged philosophy-professor father David, narrated by Thomas. Thomas's mother -- David's wife -- is dead; the reader knows this even as Thomas says that she's "gone." Even through Thomas's eyes, we can see that David is becoming disconnected for his life -- sitting quietly on his bed for hours at a time, forgetting to go to his lectures, letting Thomas take on more and more responsibility to keep the house running. At the same time, Thomas has constructed a mildly fantastic world for himself -- drawn by Hornschemeier in a slightly more childlike, looser style -- in which Thomas maintains his mother's garden and does other rituals to let her come home.

Before long, David is worse -- much worse. Events spiral from there, to a moment I didn't expect but was made inevitable by the preceding story. Eventually, Thomas learns that his mother will never come home. And that neither will his father.

Mother, Come Home is a subtle, dark story about death and madness and fantasy, tied together by symbols and the voice of an older Thomas looking back on his childhood. It's not bleak, though; Thomas survives his traumatic childhood, and perhaps Hornschmeier's lesson is that we all can, if we try -- if we step outside our rituals and fantasies and reach out to each other, we can make it through.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Neko Case - Prison Girls
via FoxyTunes

Monday, February 22, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 19 (2/22) -- The Year of Loving Dangerously by Rall and Callejo

We all know that it's generally much easier for a woman to make a living -- or just ease her way through the world -- using the equipment between her legs than it is for a man to do the same. There are entire academic subjects -- some more psychological, others delving into the physiology -- explaining and arguing and explicating that big difference, not to mention the entire careers of a vast army of stand-up comedians. But, in man-bites-dog fashion, it's always more interesting when it happens the other way around. And that's why Ted Rall's story of the summer of 1984 is worthy of a graphic novel, even if those of us who happen to be men wonder if things happened quite the way he describes them, if anyone could be young and attractive and outgoing and vivacious enough -- even in that halcyon year, in the Babylon that is New York City -- to trade sex and companionship for a roof over his head consistently.

When 1984 began, Ted Rall was a junior in the engineering program at Columbia University, teetering on the edge of being expelled after a medical emergency caused him to miss finals the previous year and a nasty English professor flunked him along with an entire class. One low grade would see him kicked out -- and then that low grade hit. Since he lived in a Columbia dorm, he was also immediately homeless -- and he'd just lost his job, because of someone else's lie. He then went on a road trip with his best friend Chris, getting arrested for drug possession and having his money stolen by the cops. Suddenly, he had lost just about everything he had. (Of course, everyone at the bottom has a story of how failure is due to circumstances and other people's malice. And everyone at the top has a story of how success is entirely the result of hard work, determination, and intelligence.)

As Rall tells it, he was already a ladies' man by this point, with steady girlfriends occasionally but one-night stands frequently. And so he just upped that game, seeing a few girls a couple of times a week and relying on being invited home on other nights. (Going back to Ohio to live with his mother was never an option Rall could have stomached, and his divorced father apparently wouldn't have taken him in. And his friends seem mostly to have been other Columbia students living in dorms, which made it difficult to couch-surf with them once his student ID expired.)

So he survived, stitching together those one-night stands -- and some other semi-legal, or worse, schemes -- into a life until he managed to get a job as a trader trainee on Wall Street (with that friend, Chris), then saved up to rent a cheap apartment in a bad neighborhood (again with Chris -- occasionally life does have a simplified cast of characters, just like a movie).

As a "my time in hell" memoir, Year of Loving Dangerously is a bit thin -- Rall got through a season of uncertainty by having a lot of sex with mostly young, attractive New York women, which most of us would not consider a terrible hardship. But Rall does remember the hand-to-mouth feel of those days, and brings across the grasping calculation he felt about his relationships with women. The book ends soon after he gets that job and apartment; this isn't the story of how this experience changed the way Rall dealt with women for the rest of his life, or how it made him into the cartoonist/illustrator he became; it's just the story of this one point in his life. As such, it does have a tendency to come across as bragging. But Rall's dialogue and narration keep the story flowing, and Callejo (artist of Bluesman) draws a lot of very attractive women in and out of bed with the young Ted Rall. I still have the feeling that Rall is telling this story in a very slanted way -- that he's very carefully chosen how to present this time in his life to make himself look as glamorous and positive as possible -- but it's a very readable graphic memoir that will make all men close to Rall's age either remember their own youth fondly or wish fervently that they'd been more "active" back in the day.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Ingrid Michaelson - Die Alone
via FoxyTunes

Time Travel for Fun and Business

I'm currently looking over a cover mechanical, sent via e-mail through my company's neato-keano intranet-based routing system. And I note that it was sent at 8:05 PM on Friday, with a "due back" time of 3:00 PM on the previous day (Thursday).

If I could do that, I very much I doubt I'd be bothering with cover mechanicals for accounting books....

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/20

Greetings, wage-slaves! (And whatever rentiers I may have out there as well.)

This is my weekly Monday-morning post, listing and commenting on the books that I saw for review the previous week. I haven't read any of these books yet, so longer reviews may follow. But below is what I can tell about these books by looking at them and from whatever prior knowledge I may have.

Pride of place has to go to Christopher Rowley's new novel, Pleasure Model, for the title and for that very pulpy cover. It's both the first book in Rowley's Netherworld series and the first title in the new Heavy Metal Pulp fiction line, a partnership between Heavy Metal magazine and Tor Books. The series will feature novels that combine noir with fantasy, illustrated in a Heavy Metal-esque manner. (This book, for example, is a future murder mystery centered on a down-and-out police detective named Rook, and has interior illustrations by Justin Norman and a cover by Gregory Manchess.) It was published at the beginning of this month, and so is already available everywhere.

J.V. Jones's "Sword of Shadows" series -- which began just over a decade ago with A Cavern of Black Ice -- concludes with Watcher of the Dead, coming in hardcover from Tor this April.

Petrodor is the second in Joel Shepherd's "Trial of Blood & Steel" fantasy quartet, after Sasha. Apparently, the title character of the first book (our series heroine) is now living in the titular city of this book, and continuing her efforts to stop a looming war between her homeland Lenayin and "the mighty Bacosh." Petrodor will be published by Pyr in trade paperback on March 2nd.

Also from Pyr is Kay Kenyon's Prince of Storms, the fourth and last book in her far-future multiversal epic "The Entire and the Rose." It's a hardcover that hit bookstores on February 16th, and -- since I haven't read any of the previous books in the series -- I think I'll leave it at that.

I was all set to bubble about Adrian Tchaikovsky's Empire in Black and Gold -- the first of an epic fantasy trilogy under the overall title "Shadows of the Apt" -- being yet another manifestation of the rise of Russian and ex-Warsaw Pact fantasy in translation, and how wonderful it is that the fantasy audience is enjoying these books...when I checked again, and saw that Tchaikovsky is actually British, and was born in Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire. Oh, well. But this book still has a gorgeously golden Jon Sullivan cover and an evil Wasp empire -- which, as you can see from the cover, means its solders have actual wasp wings that allow them to fly. That is utterly made of awesome, so how could Empire in Black and Gold be less than good? It'll be published by Pyr as a trade paperback on March 2nd.

And last for this week is the one book of comics this time out: Uneasy Happiness, the third collection of Lewis Trondheim's "Little Nothings" diary strips. (If you can read French, you can see them as they come out on his blog; the rest of us have to wait for these annual translated collections.) I've reviewed the first two books for ComicMix, and enjoyed both of them greatly; Trondheim has a gift for finding and pinning to the page the small, important moments of life. Uneasy Happiness will be published by NBM in March.
Listening to: Elvis Perkins In Dearland - Slow Doomsday
via FoxyTunes

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 18 (2/21) -- Amulet: The Stonekeeper's Curse by Kazu Kibuishi

This is the second -- though very clearly not final -- book in the Amulet series, from the editor and guiding light of the Flight series of anthologies. I reviewed the first book in the middle of one of my reading-massive-stacks-of-comics-for-the-Eisners around this time last year, and mostly liked it; the Flight crew has tended to do solid, attractive animation-influenced work that doesn't really stretch outside of a narrow commercial (and often faintly, or explicitly Young Adult) comfort zone, and Amulet: The Stonekeeper was smack dab in the middle of that territory.

The Stonekeeper's Curse continues very much in the path of the first book, like so many portal fantasies that turn into series, the fact that our young heroine Emily (and her brother Navin and comatose, poisoned mother ) came from our world to this fantasy world quickly disappears into the background as the stew of walking robot houses, evil elf-lords, talking trees, powerful sentient gems, and wily, lovable fox-warriors bubbles up over increasing heat. Emily is a Young Woman With a Destiny, Scion of a Powerful, Renowned Family, Holder of a Mysterious Magical Artifact, and one or two other high-fantasy-for-youngsters cliches -- did I mention that she's a spunky tomboy? -- but Kibuishi embraces Amulet as a genre exercise, so it never becomes cynical. (For other examples of those genre elements: the evil elf-lord has a source of power very similar to Emily's, and his eager-to-please son is chasing her under the command of an older, nastier general.)

Stonekeeper's Curse is a well-told adventure story that rumbles down a path many stories have worn down before it; it's not going to surprise anyone who knows fantasy or YA in the slightest. But its expected audience will not have read this story a thousand times already, and may well imprint hard on this version of it -- Kibuishi has an engaging illustrative style mixing clean lines for characters and deep tones for backgrounds, and he hits the beats of this story solidly and does all of the expected things with grace and energy. Amulet is following in the footsteps of Bone, and that's a hard act to follow -- this isn't Bone, and never will be, but it's a entertaining story in its own right, and it's always fun to see pointy-eared elves -- who look disconcertingly like Penny Arcade's Witchaloks -- get what's coming to them. Pre-teens can do much, much worse than this, and often do.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Hot Springs - Fantome Dinosaure
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Incoming Books: 20 February

The Montclair Book Center -- now as always, my favorite independent bookstore, and well worth a visit for anyone in North Jersey -- called earlier in the week to say that my special order had come in, so I dragged my two sons over there this morning to pick up some goodies. Thing 1 also grabbed the first book of The 39 Clues, and Thing 2 found (as usual) three random Garfield collections. And I got the following:

The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard -- nearly 1200 pages of Ballardian goodness, with an introduction by Martin Amis that, I imagine, adds up to a major claim of "is too literature." (And he's right.) It even contains two stories that weren't in the original 2002 UK edition, so, once again, I see that procrastinating has worked in my favor. It also has a three-page listing of original publications in the back, which makes it an almost perfect reprint collection. (Only almost because it only gives the year and name of the publication, and because it doesn't say where those two added stories originally appeared.) Everyone who reads both SF and literature should own this -- and I don't see why anyone wouldn't read both SF and literature.

Just before Christmas, Shelf Awareness, an e-mail newsletter for booksellers, listed a bunch of things that various contributors thought should be hand-sold to customers for the holiday season. Two of them sounded good to me, so I filed them away for further review -- and I just bought them today.

The first was Poisoned Pens, edited by Gary Dexter. It's a quote book -- and I've been reading those for at least two decades now -- containing nasty things said by one writer about another. Once I get a chance to start paging through it, expect it to enliven my "Quote of the Week" for some time to come.

The other book Shelf Awareness recommended is Obsolete, by Anna Jane Grossman. It's an alphabetical listing of things that don't exist anymore, from Polaroids to cyclamate to gas station attendants to vacuum tubes, and it looks like a great book to read a little bit at a time.

Matthew Hughes's third "Hengis Hapthorn" novel Hespira was finally published at the beginning of this year. It's the follow-up to Majestrum and The Spiral Labyrinth, by one of the best (and probably the most criminally underrated) writers in the SFF field.

The University of Chicago Press has been issuing Donald E. Westlake Richard Stark's "Parker" novels in matching trade paperbacks, and they've just gotten past the point where the last reprinting (from Warner, about a decade ago) stopped. So now I can start buying the UCP books, and maybe even go on a Parker spree sometime soon. I got the most recent batch of three books: The Seventh, The Handle, and The Rare Coin Score. The Parker books are some of the best hardboiled fiction available, and these are right in the middle of the series; I'm sure I won't be disappointed.

And last was a book I didn't special order, but found while I was browsing: Scott Westerfeld's new steampunk YA novel Leviathan. I read Scott's two-book space opera series from Tor, many years ago (and stuck them into a two-in-one at my then-employer the SFBC), but I haven't managed to read any of his books since then. I still have hopes of getting to Peeps (which is on the to-be-read shelves somewhere), but this one is shiny and new, with a great map on the endpapers. And buying shiny new books by good writers is what we all should do as often as possible.

Listening to: Prototypes - Ici Ou Peut-Être Demain
via FoxyTunes