Friday, December 29, 2017

The Belated and Unnecessary Twelfth Anniversary Post

This blog came into existence on October 4th, 2005, and I keep forgetting that exact date as each Fall rolls around and it's time to look back on the past Year in Blogging. This year, as you can plainly see, is another example.

I decided, after only realizing I'd overrun the date two weeks later, that I'd give myself a month's leeway, instead of trying to bash out this post on the day I noticed I'd missed it. I had no idea if you folks would see any difference -- even more, how can you see a difference between this post and the one I didn't do? -- but it was a reasonable plan, and I love plans.

Then, when I overran that deadline, I figured what trouble could another month do? And when that deadline loomed, well, the end of the year was in sight, and isn't that time more suitable? Of course it is. And so here we are now, in the cold dark of late December, exactly the right time to look backwards and wonder where the hell we went wrong.

Following last year's precedent, this year's post will have SEO-friendly bolded keywords rather than headings, because we're in Internet 3.0, goddamn it. Perhaps this will aid you as you scan the trackless sea of text ahead of you and heave a sigh, or even entice you to read a bit instead of immediately moving on to that next cute picture of a cat or explanation of why {insert opposition political party} is the very worst thing that has ever existed in the world.

In case anyone out there is bad at math, let me say for the record that I've now been doing this for twelve years. And I thought I would be better at it by now, or at least managed to keep up a routine.

I always begin this post about looking back by looking back: so here are links to the previous anniversary posts: the plain first, the hoopla of the second, the hullabaloo of the third, the excitement of the fourth, the missing fifth, the razzamatazz of the sixththe fantabulous sevenththe gala eighth, the splendiferous ninth, and the delayed and rushed tenth and the muted and melancholy eleventh. Among them, they represent a massive amount of time-wasting, which you will certainly not need unless you are the Chris Pratt character in Passengers.

Next up, always, is the legend of the founding of the blog. Long ago, in the before-time, the great warrior Hornswoggler delved deep into the Swamp of Google, seeking the Blog Template that would grant him vast fame and riches and the hand of the king's daughter. Sadly, he didn't find it, and so Antick Musings instead came to be. But that mighty warrior is still using that template that he did find on October 4, 2005, perhaps in hopes his constancy will prove an acceptable replacement for good taste and usefulness.

Then we need to get into the ritual comparing of post counts, which is exactly as much of a dick-measuring contest as you fear it will be. (I'm deeply sorry.) Since I had the bad judgment to begin a blog in the middle of a year (October 4th, in case you've forgotten), each year is substantially disjoint from the calendar.
  • 2016-2017 -- 263 posts
  • 2015-2016 -- 144 posts
  • 2014-2015 -- 258 posts
  • 2013-2014 -- 434 posts
  • 2012-2013 -- 285 posts
  • 2011-2012 -- 332 posts
  • 2010-2011 -- 445 posts
  • 2009-2010 -- 711 posts
  • 2008-2009 -- 880 posts
  • 2007-2008 -- 834 posts
  • 2006-2007 -- 841 posts
  • 2005-2006 -- 809 posts
Then I have to complicate the matter by throwing in my second blog, Editorial Explanations, which ran for nearly three years (February of 2011 through the end of 2013), since it started as a series of posts on Antick Musings.

Editorial Explanations:
  • 2012-2013 -- 560 posts
  • 2011-2012 -- 802 posts
  • early 2011 -- 760 posts
And that means, when you put all of it together, you get:
  • 2016-2017 -- 263 posts
  • 2015-2016 -- 144 posts
  • 2014-2015 -- 258 posts
  • 2013-2014 -- 434 posts
  • 2012-2013 -- 285 + 560 = 845 posts
  • 2011-2012 -- 332 + 802 = 1,134 posts
  • 2010-2011 -- 445 + 760 = 1,205 posts
  • 2009-2010 -- 711 posts
  • 2008-2009 -- 880 posts
  • 2007-2008 -- 834 posts
  • 2006-2007 -- 841 posts
  • 2005-2006 -- 809 posts
While we're waiting for the highly-paid stats experts to explain what that all means -- spoiler alert: they never will -- we can see clearly that this blog has been diminishing and going into the West. (Though there is a bit of a bounce this past year -- perhaps a dead-cat bounce, but a bounce nonetheless.) But I hope that it has remained Antick Musings and will always continue as it began: random, desultory, odd, unreliable, and defiantly un-pigeonholed.

Antick Musings was meant to be the place where I wrote about things other than books, because I did books for a living. Well, I haven't done books for a living for a while, and haven't done the books I really liked for a living for a decade now. So it's probably not surprising that it turned into a book blog along the way. I do miss writing about movies (and watching them, more than a few times a year), and I do wonder why I keep rotating the places I dump large clusters of words. (Most of the '90s were Usenet, specifically rec.arts.sf.written. Then came the Straight Dope Message Board, then here. Most recently, I seem to be typing stuff into web boxes on Quora. One might think I would keep those clumps of words here, in a place I control, but one would evidently be wrong.)

So, then, to make up the bulk of this anniversary post, here are some of the sentences I wrote about books in the past year, linked to the longer collections of sentences about those books:

I don't know if comics needs another chronicler of low-key business failure and despair, but we seem to have just gotten one.

We all know That Guy: the one who always has a plan to get ahead, a scheme to get rich, a quick shortcut onto Easy Street, and a boundless optimism that he can do it all with just the tiniest bit of help.

Um, we all know what it means when a middle-aged creator does a book-length story about a body part, right? OK, maybe it could be some thing thrillingly obscure, like body integrity identity disorder, but 99 times out of a hundred, it means The Big C.

All of these are unpleasant people who do dull things in annoying ways and are both deeply horrible and deeply boring.

The four Eltingville lads are deeply horrible people, but they're verbally horrible in that pop-culture way, all references and insults and mean-spirited trivia contests and in-group insults. Each story is draining, as it must be -- the expression of another year's worth of anger at the stupid things that comics/SF/gaming people do to each other and the world.

I like to think I'm a thoughtful reader.  Not perfect, of course -- who is? -- but good at working out metaphors and allegories and fictional schemas of all kinds. If I can see that there's a shape moving under the surface of a book, I can usually make a decent guess at what kind of leviathan lurks down there. 

There's a standard for autobiographical comics: they have to be about "you," obviously, but that "you" must be larger than life. Whatever your actual flaws are, make them bigger and funnier -- your cartoon avatar must be a cartoon, in all of the senses of that word that you can manage.

A metaphor has to become concretized in a story, to be something other than the words that make it up -- it has to mean actual things that happen in the story or underpin it.

I don't know if I completely understood it -- I'm the kind of reader who wants to know how worlds work, and this isn't a world that can be clearly explicated -- but I liked it, and respected it, and cared about the people in it.

But there may be something like an ending not too far in the future, and not just an endless stream of cliffhangers for as long as people keep buying the book. I hope so: I like stories that have endings. It makes them stories.

You might have heard that Alan Moore does not have the best relationship with DC Comics recently. (For values of "recently" that include the last twenty-plus years, and values of "not the best relationship" that include Moore hurling actual attempted magickal spells at them from his secret base in darkest Northampton.)

In every group of close-knit friends, there's always one -- at least one -- not as tightly connected as the others. That's the friend who would be thrown out of the sleigh first when the wolves get closer, the comic relief who the slasher picks off before the opening credits, the one who was always there and dependable but somehow no more than that.

Something in this world does not want you to read Miracleman stories, and each one must be snatched from the claws of that something and dragged out into the wider world.

I wish I could just hand this book to you so you could go into it as ignorant as I was.

Hellboy was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that.

(Look, folks: dressing up in colorful clothes and running around beating up people is essentially silly. Please stop calling attention to how silly it is!)

I like to think I'm good at talking about narrative -- I was an editor for a long time, and have been deconstructing stories in my head since I learned those tools. I'm not necessarily right, or even in the right neighborhood, since no one ever is. But I'm usually plausible, which is what talking-about-narrative game aims for.

(And "near the end," for a strip that ran fifty years, still means there were four years to go. And four years, as we're all about to learn, can be a really long time.)

In a world overrun by dirty hippies, grubby hicks, P.C. killjoys, sickos, ex-wives, and today's angry teens, we all need someone to tell us what is right and true.

I've been giving the various Hellboy books a pass from one of my core reading rules -- I don't like to read books that murder me or my family just to make a dangerous background for the heroes to wander through -- but I'm having less and less patience with each new story.

Friendly comedy is "look at what a goof I am," while hostile comedy is "look at those jerks over there."

If you're looking for the usual superhero fare, where violence solves problems...well, you probably should read Plutona, because that's not what violence actually does.

In retrospect, this set the tone for a lot of writer Grant Morrison's later work: portentous superhero operas, with characters emoting in high style, skating by on charm and flash and eye-candy to distract from the fact that the moments of the story don't entirely track and that sensible human beings would never actually act in these ways.

But it does seem to me that every Moebius epic inevitably ends with a big-nosed Everyman on the run from a totalitarian strongman in a dream world, pursuing the image of the perfect woman, who is not so much a character as an idea, even if she's supposed to be a real person.

It was as weird and exhilarating as it sounds, and if it made it difficult for anyone to follow, well, that's the problem with metafiction. It's difficult to step back down to plain old fiction afterward.

I do not think I'm doing a good job of making this book sound appealing. Maybe I should come in at this from a different direction.

If Jim Ballard had mellowed into a gentle wryness in his extreme old age, he might have provided a script for a book like Mooncop, the story of a man left behind by a now-fading space age, one guy left to do a pointless job in a place beautiful and hard and cold and alien.

This is not a story about the interstellar war, or the unlikely economy, or the sail-powered globe-trotting ultra-luxury cruise liners that are nevertheless repeatedly attacked and conquered by murderous pirates.

If you're not willing to deeply believe in this neurotic young woman, and insist along with her that blogging about clothing is a serious and worthy pursuit for an adult, you will be left cold, grumpy and entirely outside the story.

And, since time wounds all heels, I'm chagrined to realize that Akiko ended a good decade ago, and that Crilley, who I thought of as a young guy, is actually a couple of years older than me (and so is young slightly less than I am, which is already not much at all).

This is no way looks like a step forward from what she used to do.

There are times when you can't merely resign, for whatever reason. No, you have to make the bastards kick you out.

At some point in your life, you either realize that punching people is not the solution to problems, or you become a full-blown psychopath.

I really do not want to be that guy.

His world is more Phildickian, if you want to reach for a prose SF equivalent: full of people just scraping by, slaves to their obsessions and circumstances, capable of love but often hobbled by it, human in the most basic and humbling ways.

Forty years in the MU has ground him down enough that he can appear in Secret Wars, or whatever bullshit crossover it is this year, and make a few more cents for his corporate masters.

The great thing about life, though, is that it's never too late to read a good book as long as you can read: any book that is worse read later is not that good to begin with.

You goddamn asshole, P.J. O'Rourke.

So the fact that any one of us is not diagnosed with autism doesn't mean we're "normal" -- it just means we think in ways that haven't caused this particular kind of problem yet, or that our differences are less diagnose-able, or just that we're functional enough that it's not worth the resources to investigate us.

I've tagged this book as "Fantasy," but I don't think it really is. But it's a book about the fantasies that we have, and about how fantasy creatures can make real life bearable.

That's just one example: death and pain and destruction lurk around every corner, and the people who are responsible so often skate on blithely while the people around them pay the price.

It's good to know our limits. If this is outside yours, good for you.

But, still, the spectre of English Fascism in 1937 is a creaky, anachronistic thing to read a long screed against, and Wigan Pier is more than 50% screed by volume.

It's important to check your assumptions against reality regularly: we often find that what we think is true actually has very little do with with what really happened.

If you're the kind of American whose conception of "comics" is entirely filled by people in bright colors punching each other, this is very much not the book for you. I hope there aren't actually that many of you, but -- since I'm a pessimist -- I tend to assume you're the majority, you thick-knuckled vulgarians you.

In Murderbot, Wells has created the first slacker killer-robot, which I deeply love.

There are immediate meanings, the implied history of this world, deeper satires of academic life and the foibles of humanity in general, plus silly pictures that have circles and arrows pointing to places where a dragon is lurking unseen.

Every so often a reader needs to take on a masterpiece. You can only bump along with decent or pretty good books for so long: once in a while you need to open the floodgates wide and let a writer at the full tide of his powers wash over you.

The great thing about history is that it never stops being history. It might technically get older, but, realistically, a hundred years is the same as a hundred and twenty. Old is old, dead is dead.  

As I noted above, this has basically turned into a book blog. One major part of the book-blog is the criticism of what one has read; I just listed far too many examples of that. Other major parts of a book blog are the author interview (but I don't like talking to people), the book giveaway (which, again, requires talking to people), and the regular Presentation of The Swag (which I can actually do). In my case, I call those posts Reviewing the Mail and run them every Monday morning. I used to make a rigid distinction between books I got for free, which went into that post, and books I bought, which went into different posts, and books from the library, which I mostly neglected to mention until I read them, and books given to me as gifts, which...yeah, it was too complicated. Everything is now going into the same Monday-morning post, for my own sanity. 

I have mostly avoided writing about politics here, for which forbearance I'm sure you thank me. But when politics wanders into places where I used to live, such as the publishing world, I sometimes toss out some ill-informed opinions. And so I did back in January, about Milo Yannopolous, who we've probably all forgotten about already.

I wrote about the record Charming Tales by the Brooklyn-based musical act Charming Disaster back in April, and I'm still listening regularly to songs from that record. And I'll repeat that their densely allusive lyrical style and often-genre subject matter is just the kind of thing that a lot of people who read the kind of books I read would also enjoy a lot.

I had an annoying computer issue with my work laptop this year, and complained about it. (The alt-tab switcher would default to the older, less useful style after sleeping.) After that post, I figured out how to fix it: use Task Manager to kill and restart Explorer every time it happens. The solution to every computer problem, I think, is to stop something and restart it.

That was what I was nattering on about during the Twelfth Year of the Blog. Look for a similar post covering the thirteenth year on October 4, 2018...or possibly somewhat later than that.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/23

Merry Christmas! [1]

It would be amusing and oddly appropriate if I had a whole big stack of books to write about here, having gotten them as "gifts" over the past week. However, I didn't get much work done last week, and I think that was pretty common. Plus, the mail system here in the US is solidly jammed up with actual presents at this moment.

All that is to say: nothing to report this week. If you celebrate today, I hope it's a good one. If you don't, I hope you at least have the day off for a movie and some good Chinese food.

[1] If you don't celebrate Christmas, please replace with the seasonally-appropriate greeting of your choice. If you are currently at war on Christmas, best wishes for an early armistice.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Quote of the Week

"I was knocked outta bed late last night.
I was woken up by the sound of dynamite.
I ran downstairs to find an army man,
He said 'we gotta blow those things we don't understand'."
 - Dead Milkmen, "Big Lizard"

Monday, December 18, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/16

Hey there! Once again I'm going to list the books that came in during the past week, in hopes you -- yes you, no one else -- will find something fun to read next. I do this out of the pure goodness of my heart, out of inertia, and out of an overpowering guilt that I need to do something with these free books that come in the mail. (And that I don't manage to read as often as I want to.)

First up is a new novel from Ben Bova, yclept Survival. It's the fourth in his current hard-SF series, which began with New Earth and seems to be about preparing humanity (and whatever other civilizations they can contact and aid) to survive an upcoming gamma-ray pulse from the center of the galaxy, which would otherwise do nasty things to organic life. In this book, the guy who seems to be the series hero -- Alexander Ignatiev -- is off to make contact with another civilization and warn them about the burst. Unfortunately, that civilization is a secretive one of machine intelligences, who think they will survive the burst just fine and are not happy at all with meat-bags knowing they exist. So things look rough for Alex and his crew, though I'm sure they make it through in time for the next book. Survival is a Tor hardcover, available the day after Christmas in all of the usual places.

Also from Tor -- as a trade paperback , hitting stores last week -- is the new Ellen Datlow-edited anthology Mad Hatters and March Hares. Do I need to tell you the theme is Alice in Wonderland? I hope you figured that out on your own. It has eighteen brand-new stories from authors including Ysabeau S. Wilce, Jane Yolen, Catherynne M. Valente, Delia Sherman, Seanan McGuire, Jeffrey Ford, Andy Duncan, and others.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/9

I have thoroughly run out of ways to open this weekly post, so now each Sunday I sit and stare blankly at a computer screen, hoping to think of another way to say the same thing once again. Eventually, I write something like this, and I can keep going. But I want to warn you that, some day, I might just give up and never be seen again.

But not this week!

This time out, I got one book in the mail, so I can tell you about that. It's Mississippi Roll, the twenty-fourth book in the long-running shared universe "Wild Cards" series. This one is credited as edited by George R.R. Martin, who has been running the whole shebang since 1987's Wild Cards. (Always, I think, aided to one degree or another by Melinda M. Snodgrass, whose credit appears and disappears semi-randomly.) Wild Cards is set in a universe where first contact was made soon after WW II in a rather unpleasant way: an alien spaceship set off a "gene bomb" that caused mayhem worldwide. If I remember the percents correctly, 90% of the people affected just died immediately. Then about 90% of the survivors were hideously deformed in one way or another, becoming "Jokers." About 1%, then, got at least somewhat useful superpowers and still looked like normal human beings. I'm not quite sure how new Jokers and Aces are created at this point in the timeline, sixty-some years later -- maybe the bomb created some endemic pockets of contamination that people stumble into, or if everyone now has some chance of Joker-izing or Ace-ificating at birth or puberty or whenever. But, in any case, this is a world with superheroes, and supervillains, and mutated freaks, and odder things, and has had them for three-plus generations by the start of this book.

Mississippi Roll starts up a new trilogy, which makes it a decent starting point. I personally read the first dozen or so -- all of the Bantam series, which descended into the usual shared-world problem of "my villain is even worse than yours!" iterated several times with body-swapping rapist fiends trying to conquer the world -- and petered out somewhere in that very dark period. I have no idea if the evil body-swapping has died down, but it's been close to two decades and ten more books, so I certainly hope so.

Anyway, this new one is a Tor hardcover and hit stores last week. I used to really like this series, and may dip back into it once again. Maybe you'd like it, too?

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Madwoman of the Sacred Heart by Alexandro Jodorowsky and Moebius

Twenty-some years ago, it was reading a bunch of random Moebius books that convinced me that French comics were all about philosophical bullshit. I've since been convinced otherwise, through the work of Jason and Trondheim and Kerascoet and Vehlmann and a number of others, but damn if this dull turd of a book didn't cut through all of that good stuff with a new load of weapons-grade bullshit, and almost changed my mind back again.

Moebius is not solely responsible for Madwoman of the Sacred Heart. He was just the artist this time out, so he's only responsible for what's good about this book: the clarity of line and real space that the first two-thirds of the book has (before it starts become a cramped mess of way too many small panels stuffed with far too many stupid words). The script here comes from screenwriter and international goofball Alexandro Jodorowsky, well-known for the quality of his philosophical bullshit across several media.

As usual with French comics philosophical bullshit, there's a bunch of religious loonies who talk far too much about things no one is interested in reading about and the one supposedly normal guy at the middle of it all who gets dragged along, presumably to be the audience's view into this "exciting" and "revelatory" and "mind-expanding" warmed-over '60s merde. Unfortunately, the one sane guy in Madwoman is the deeply unlikable Alan Mangel, a massive prick of a philosophy professor who starts the book with a cult-like student following and spends most of it with a diarrhea problem. (No, I am not joking. Much of his dialogue is dedicated to informing the reader that he has shit his pants once again. Lo! How transgressive is Jodorowsky!)

One of Mangel's students decides she's the reincarnation of the mother of John the Baptist -- or something roughly congruent to that -- and that Mangel is the destined father. This of course means there must also be a Joseph (a local pusher) and Mary (daughter of a South American drug baron, currently institutionalized either because she's actually crazy or her father thinks she is), and those four form our merry band of completely insane people, whom the reader is forced to follow for the entire book.

The crazy people aren't interestingly crazy: they're French crazy, which means they make long speeches about the way the universe works and the power of love and their place in the scheme of things and other things that will cause an American reader to lose consciousness rapidly. Even worse, their pseudo-philosophical bullshit seems to be right within the context of the story, inasmuch as it can be understood at all. (Which is not very far.)

So nutty things happen, and the crazy women talk too much. Then more nutty things happen, Mangel shits his pants, and they talk too much again. Repeat for nearly two hundred pages.

Just when you think you've got the rhythm down, we drop into the third section of Madwoman -- I think this was originally three French albums, though this 2011 Humanoids edition doesn't explain that in the slightest -- which is cramped and awkward, and, if this is even possible, more boring and stultifying than the first two. Perhaps Jodorowsky took a look at his notes, realized he still had eighty or ninety pages of philosophical bullshit to cram into fifty comics pages, and told Moebius to draw smaller. Whatever happened, suddenly there are twice as many panels to a page, and the pages are duller -- the one strong point Madwoman had up to that point was Moebius's layouts and art, so clearly that could not be allowed to stand.

This book is the kind of thing that makes you stupider as you read it: it not only wastes your time, but actively destroys brain cells along the way. I cannot in good conscience recommend it for any purpose; the coated paper would make it unsuitable even to use to start a fire. Moebius has done better work -- his "Blueberry" westerns are particularly good, and some of the comics he wrote himself are only slightly tinged with philosophical bullshit. I can't speak for Jodorowsky, but I hope not everything he touches turns out this bad; it would be difficult to sustain a career if that were the case.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Herbie Archives, Volume One by Shane O'Shea and Ogden Whitney

Yeah, it did take me until now to finally read Herbie. It is so much exactly the kind of thing that I would like that the delay seems weird, but it's a big world, and you can only do one thing at a time. I finally got to this particular thing, and can finally talk about it.

But wait! You say. Did I come in the middle of something? What on earth are you going on about?

All right, all right. Herbie Popnecker was the "hero" of a series of stories from the American Comics Group, for about a decade from 1958 through 1967 -- first as one-off stories in anthologies, then as the star of twenty-three issues of his own comic in 64-67. He's a short, fat, torpid, laconic kid with heavy-lidded eyes, a bowl haircut, and a lollipop always in his mouth, whose father is constantly complaining about him and calling him a "little fat nothing." He doesn't like sports or schoolwork or playing with other kids; at home he tends to sit in a straightback chair and doze, and we don't see him at school or interacting with his peers.

So far, so promising for a humor title, right? Sounds just like the thing in the '50s-'60s burst of teen-interest comics, with Archie and Binky and Scooter!

Well, Herbie was more than just a little fat nothing, luckily. He was also world-famous, almost omnipotent, and oddly resourceful. His lollipops gave him superpowers -- this is slightly inconsistent, since sometimes he seems to have power merely because he is Herbie -- and his aid is regularly sought by US Presidents and UN Secretary-Generals. Gorgeous women swoon at his approach. Vicious animals flee when they realize who he is. He travels in time, via lollipop and a flying boat-like grandfather clock, and can walk under the oceans and across empty space to reach distant planets.

And, if threatened, all he needs to do is ask "You want I should bop you with this here lollipop?" Herbie's bop is a force that can frighten the greatest forces in the universe -- in just this book, we see suns, dragons, and Satan himself cowed by it.

That is one weird mix of elements, and it doesn't seem like it should work. But ACG editor Richard E. Hughes (writing as "Shane O'Shea") kept a deadpan tone around Herbie, making it all strangely plausible. And Ogden Whitney drew all of the stories in a solid, straightforward style -- both of them as if to drain any possible insinuation of imagination out of the stories, as if to prove Herbie's adventures must be plausible if they are this normal-seeming.

It worked. It still works, now: some elements are a little outdated (the supernatural creatures are somewhat comic-booky and of their time), but most of Herbie is unique and sui generis. And many individual panels are still laugh-out-loud funny after fifty-plus years.

The first third of the Herbie stories were collected in 2008 as Herbie Archives, Volume One, which is what I finally read. There are two more volumes, collecting the rest of the Herbie stories, which I now need to dig up and read. If you like weird comics, you probably already know about Herbie. If you've never read him, you'll probably want to move him up in the queue -- this is still really good stuff, nutty and crazy in all the best midcentury ways.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/1

This time of year, a lot of businesses slow down, under the weight of holiday parties and darkness-induced depression and everyone's sudden desire to use their vacation days before they lose them. [1] Book publishing can be like that, since it relies on getting product out into retail outlets (physical or digital) and then trying to drive consumer interest.

Which is a long way round to saying that I don't have any new books to write about this week, and I'm not expecting the weeks between now and the end of the year will be any more fruitful.

But I know I have far more books than I can read in any reasonable time (probably 3-5 years worth, even if I was back up at my reading prime), so not getting new ones if not a huge burden. And there will be new books eventually: there always are.

So check back next week to see if "eventually" has come around yet.

[1] Some businesses, or portions of businesses, actually speed up, especially sales organizations with a calendar year-end. My current employer has pieces like that, but they're mostly too busy to even engage with other departments (like me) at this time of year.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick's last big collection of short stories was 2007's The Dog Said Bow-Wow, which somewhat explains the title of last year's Not So Much, Said the Cat.

(Note: there may be a talking cat somewhere in this book, and possibly even one that says "Not so much." But I can't recall what story that cat could possibly be in, so I will leave this as a possibility rather than a reality.)

It collects seventeen stories -- some may actually be novelettes, but none seem long enough to be novellas -- originally published in this last decade. Close to a majority came from Asimov's, but others were in F&SF, on, and in various anthologies. So it is possible that a very assiduous SFnal reader could have read all of these already -- perhaps more likely if that reader were a big Swanwick fan -- but it's not very likely.

As I've said several times before: there are two ways to write about a book full of short fiction: you can either (as I did for many years at the SFBC, writing internal reader's reports) run down story-by-story, giving thumbnail plot descriptions and canned literary judgments, or you can talk vaguely about the book as a whole. "Real" reviewers tend to do the latter, and not just because it's easier -- the former tends towards the tedious and unnecessary at the best of times. So I stick to the easy style these days, and not just because I don't read with a notebook open and full of scribbles anymore. (That's how I read, a lot of the time, for sixteen years. I miss it, now and then, but the feeling passes.)

The stories here are mixed SF and fantasy. I felt it tilted towards a fantasy feeling, but that's in large part because the SF is mostly post-apocalyptic, either part of Swanwick's "Darger and Surplus" series or similarly motivated, with mysterious superpowerful AIs serving as "gods" and "demons" and along the way proving Arthur C. Clarke's famous dictum.

More important than genre -- for me at least, and I hope for any self-respecting reader as well -- is the question of how good the stories are. They're very good: emotionally resonant, pointed and precise, carefully crafted for maximum impact. Swanwick is one of our best short-story writers, in genre or out of it, and this is yet another example of why.

I don't read a lot of short fiction these days -- I read a lot less of everything than I did, back when I read for a living -- so I'm not in any position to say any of you need to read anything in particular. But Swanwick is vital and important and great; if you read SF/fantasy short fiction at all, he's someone to know and keep track of.

Red in November

This might be another slim one: on top of my current issue of figuring out when and how to read when I'm not commuting as much (oh horrors! what a problem to have!), this is a month with a major holiday and a whole lot of college visits with my High School Junior second son.

I might be busy with things that aren't books -- this what I'm saying.

But when I was busy with books, these are the books I was busy with:

Charles M. Schulz, Schulz's Youth (11/1)

S. Gross and Jim Charlton, editors, Books, Books, Books (11/7)

Anonymous, editor, National Lampoon's Truly Sick, Tasteless, and Twisted Cartoons (11/8)

Bill Willingham, Phil Jimenez, and others, Fairest, Vol. 1: Wide Awake (11/14)

John Layman and Rob Guillory, Chew, Vol. 6: Space Cakes (11/15)

Lawrence Block, Campus Tramp (11/15)

Michael Swanwick, Not So Much, Said the Cat (11/17)

Shane O'Shea and Ogden Whitney, Herbie Archives, Vol. 1 (11/28)

Alexandro Jodorowsky and Moebius, Madwoman of the Sacred Heart (11/29)

That was November. As I expected, it was a bit light. I want to read more books, but when I pick up specific books, or try to find time for them, it hasn't been working out lately. Again, if this is the worst problem I have in my life, I'm doing pretty damn well.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Campus Tramp by Lawrence Block

Long, long ago, back when (according to some) America Was Great, sex was mostly outlawed in books, because Greatness meant repression and fear and rigid moral least in public. As that Greatness crumbled, largely from pressure from the majority of people (who were not, deliberately, part of that Greatness but instead were marginalized and ignored and outright repressed), books slowly came to include sex, step by painful step. It started with unabashedly literary novels, as it usually does, since those are both easier to defend in front of an old, corrupt judge and generally written in such a way that one's wife or gardener will not quite understand them.

But, as the '40s and '50s marched on, things that were previously red-hot and sold behind the counter migrated onto the regular racks, and the books on the regular racks saw their sex-related vocabulary grow and alter continuously, as new words suddenly became OK to set into type (as long as wives and gardeners were elsewhere). Eventually, everything was permissible, but that didn't happen until the late '60s, roughly. (In books, that is: everything is never permissible in real life, for obvious reasons.)

So there is an entire generation of books that were pushing against the limits of acceptable sex-words, year by year and adjective by adjective, which all seem artificial and stilted to one degree or another today. Some of those are "real" novels -- literary or genre, mimetic or fabulist -- and the sex parts are now mostly quaint reminders of when they were written. But the books that were all about sex then are more interesting -- since the sex they were all about sometimes barely seems like sex to a modern reader.

And thus the red-hots of one generation come to seem cinders to their children. So sad.

Campus Tramp is right in the middle of the transition: published as a sexy but legal paperback in 1960, sold (somewhat furtively) above the counter, but all about the titillation and prurient interest. It was a "sex novel," but one that could be sold on newsstands. And that means that it reads a bit oddly fifty-plus years later -- not just because of the assumed cultural baggage and prejudices of the audience, but because of the word choices and convoluted sentences still required to describe sex at the time.

It's interesting all these years later mostly because it was written by Lawrence Block, who went on to be a major force in the crime-fiction world but at the time was a sometime college student (Antioch, out in the wilds of Ohio) and sometime minor functionary of the not-entirely-honest Scott Meredith Literary Agency. Before Campus Tramp, he'd written four previous sex novels, based mostly from other novels and the kind of ideas a boy of about nineteen has while feverishly typing a sex novel for pay. This book, though, was slightly more connected to reality, the story of a young woman arriving at a college a lot like Antioch and deciding it was time for her to not be a virgin anymore.

Since it was 1959, and Block was writing a sex novel, having sex once did inevitably turn Linda Shepard into both a huge fan of the sex act (in all of its permutations, vaguely described) and a campus resource open to all, but the book is from her point of view, and she mostly has agency. (Even as she runs through Cliche Young Woman Sex Plot #2.) Luckily for the 2017 reader, since Block had not yet become a crime fiction writer, she doesn't turn to crime or meet that sort of bad end. (For many in 1959, her end was as bad as it could possibly be already. This is entirely untrue, and we need to keep that in mind and keep saying so to the enGreatenizers who think we can get back to that 1959.)

This is not a lost gem. It's not a great classic. It's a barely plausible psychological portrait of a young woman, as constructed mostly from outside by a young man who was writing nearly as fast as he could type. But it's a fun, zippy read, and this recent edition has tasteful black-and-white nude pictures to open each chapter and class up the whole thing. And it can be fascinating to a Block fan, or to a student of cultural/sexual history.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Chew, Vol. 6: Space Cakes by John Layman and Rob Guillory

Oh, look -- another comics series I'm still poking my way through, a year or so after it ended! There are ten volumes of the collected Chew, so I'm three or four years behind at this point. I don't see any particular reason to be concerned about this -- not reading a book right when it comes out doesn't harm anything, or cause a single problem -- but I do seem to be doing a lot of it lately.

Anyway: Chew, Vol. 6: Space Cakes. Right smack-dab in the middle of the weird alternate-world detective story by John Layman (words) and Rob Guillory (pictures). See my reviews of volumes one and two and three-through-five (during one of my periodic reviewing bankruptcies) if you care; don't if you don't.

This is a comic-book world, coming out regularly in pamphlet form from a major publisher. And that means that, even if this isn't officially a superhero comic, it will tend to bend in that direction, as a tree growing in a continuous wind will be bent. So this world is, by this point, chock-full of people with weird powers, all of which (this is Chew's particular shtick) are food-related. We started with Tony Chu, who can read the history of something by eating it, and this book focuses on his twin sister Toni, who can see the future of the things she eats.

She works for NASA, another one of the super-powerful government agencies (along with the FDA and USDA) in this alternate world. And she's bubbly and goofy, as befits this goofy series. So, while Tony is in a coma (more or less) Toni takes over for a few issues of culinary mayhem and derring-do. The usual supporting cast runs around doing their thing -- including an included one-shot of the murderous rooster Poyo -- but this is Toni's story.

It's not exactly a good story for her, in the end, but saying more would get into spoiler territory. And the last few pages imply the book will go back to being about Tony, as we'd expect. So this is a big chunk of middle, though it's chewy, flavorful middle, in a banquet where we know exactly when the dessert and brandy will be coming.

Sidebar: Hey, I haven't complained about anyone's ONIX feed for a while! This book was published in January of 2013, and the publisher, Image, still hasn't managed to upload (to the major online stores) a version of the cover with words on it yet. This is appalling, and if I rated books on some kind of a scale, they'd definitely lose points for that.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Fairest, Vol. 1: Wide Awake by Bill Willingham, Phil Jimenez, and others

So, when you're a big corporation devoted to exploiting intellectual property that you've accumulated over the past seven or eight decades, and you have a new piece of IP that's doing decently, what are you going to do?

Exploit it, obviously.

DC Comics [1] didn't own Fables, as far as I know -- I haven't seen the contracts personally, but Vertigo was famously a creator-owned shop -- so that means writer Bill Willingham and artist Mark Buckingham (or maybe just Willingham, because what's comics if not a chance to grab all ownership for yourself?) had to go along with the exploitation as well. But who doesn't like a little tasteful exploitation, especially when it puts money in your pocket?

So Fables begat Jack of Fables, which was never as good as it should have been, but it exploited a fair bit of change back to DC and its creators. And, after that ended, and with Fables still chugging along towards an eventual-but-still-comfortably-in-the-future ending, DC must have been looking for a new way to exploit it.

And what's the most obvious thing to exploit in comics?

Attractive women, obviously. If they're posing wearing not-too-much, all the better.

So, in 2012, DC launched Fairest, featuring sidebar stories about the female fables. And, five years later, I finally read the first collection, Fairest, Vol. 1: Wide Awake. This one collects the initial six-issue story written by Willingham and drawn by Phil Jimenez, plus a single-issue story written by Matthew Sturges and drawn by Shawn McManus. (And, as far as I can tell, Willingham just wrote that first arc -- after that he presumably just OK'd other people's writing and cashed the checks.)

This is basically "what happened to Sleeping Beauty after she was used as a weapon of mass destruction," with Ali Baba and a pre-Frozen Snow Queen as the other components of the main triangle, plus an annoying loquacious Bat-Mite-ish genie and the inevitable Eeeevil Scary Woman Villainess. As is usual with Fables stories, it pretends to be much tougher and nastier than it really is: things work out very well for the good characters and very badly for the bad characters. (Because that is what fiction means, as the man said.)

I understand this series has ended, too, so I don't know if I'll bother to continue. I might just dig up the end of Fables itself -- I missed the last five or six collections. This was entirely pleasant Fables product for the year 2012, but it's pretty disposable now, unless you're someone working through the Fables-verse or deep in a master's thesis on the presentation of fabulistic characters in modern graphic literature.

[1] Every so often, I need to remind people that "DC Comics" stands for "Detective Comics Comics," because that's how I roll. Put it up there with "Amazon AWS."

Monday, November 27, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/25

Welcome to Cyber Monday -- well, at least for North Americans; I'm not sure if the idea of spending lots of money online the first workday after Thanksgiving has penetrated into countries with no actual tradition of Thanksgiving to begin with -- and thanks for interrupting your online-buying frenzy long enough to read words that aren't trying to get you to consume anything.

And even more so this week, since I don't have any books to write about!

(You see, usually I list here any new books I got the previous week, for purchase, publicity outreach, libraries, or any other mechanism. I'm not specifically trying to get you to buy anything, but there is an element of "hey, is this a thing you would like?" which can obviously lead to purchases.)

But, this time out, there's nothing new on the shelf. So I get to shrug and go on with my life -- and now you can do the same. See you next week.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/118

...and away we go!

This week I have three books to write about: first up is The Overneath, a new collection of short fiction by Peter S. Beagle. It collects thirteen stories originally published since 2010 in the usual genre outlets (F&SF, Weird Tales, a number of anthologies), and means Beagle has published more books (three) in the past two years than he has some entire decades ('70s: one; '80s: two). Beagle is a national treasure, though I'm one of the people who thinks his first novel, A Fine and Private Place, is better than The Last Unicorn. In any case, this collection is a trade paperback from his current regular publishers, Tachyon, and is available now in trade paperback form. (And probably in various configurations of electrons as well.)

Also from Tachyon this month is a new short story collection from Jane Yolen, The Emerald Circus. The publisher calls it her first "full-length" collection since 2005's Once Upon a Time (She Said), though I don't know what that means about 2012's The Last Selchie Child. In any case: here are sixteen stories originally published elsewhere, each one with an accompanying new story note (and possibly-not-new poem) from Yolen. It is also available now in trade paperback.

And I also have a debut novel from Kari Maaren this week: Weave a Circle Round, which looks like a Madeleine L'Engle-ish fantasy for (but not restricted to) younger readers. Our heroine Freddy has a weird family, but just wants to make it through high school without any obvious scars. Then an eccentric couple moves in next door, and she quickly finds herself in a very different time and place, where the usual adventures presumably ensue. The publisher (Tor) seems really enthusiastic about this book, and there are glowing quotes from Bruce Coville, Charles de Lint, Marie Brennan, and Jo Walton. It officially goes on sale November 28th in trade paperback, so you can see for yourself in just over a week's time.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Quote of the Week

Something cheery and bright to see you into your weekend....

"The moth don't care if the flame is real
'Cause flame and moth got a sweetheart deal
And nothing fuels a good flirtation
Like need and anger and desperation."
 - Aimee Mann, "The Moth"

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Two Themed Books of Single-Panel Cartoons

So I read two books of themed single-panel cartoons this past week. Since it's hard to write about a bunch of random single-panel cartoons anyway ("Some are funny, some are not. Some are by this person, while others are by this completely different person."), I decided I might as well stick them together into one post to maximize the awkwardness and minimize the number of actual posts on this blog.

I didn't say it was a good decision.

So first up is the clearer model: Books, Books, Books, edited by cartoonist S. Gross and handyman writer/editor Jim Charlton, published by Harper & Row in 1988. The edition I read was paper-over-boards, though I suspect it also exists in paperback form.

Books, Books, Books collects something like a hundred and fifty cartoons, roughly one to each of its un-numbered pages. One is from Playboy, a bunch are from the New Yorker, and the bulk are from places that didn't demand credit here and so didn't get it.

And, yes, they're all about books. Reading them, writing them, shelving them (at home, in libraries, in book stores), thinking about them, and mentioning the names of famous writers in passing. These were mostly contemporary cartoons at the time: there's a lot of Roz Chast, Sidney Harris, and Jack Ziegler, with some Eldon Dedini and at least one Charles Addams reaching back further.

There are obviously no gags about ebooks or Amazon here -- this is more like the world I started working in just a few years later, where the bookstores have big tables up front with stacks of books. I found this mostly funny, in a slightly New Yorker-y way: a few cartoons are arch, or require some knowledge of an author or the book world, but most are just jokes readers would get. It does what it sets out to do; this is what I'm saying.

The other book was a bit weirder: National Lampoon's Truly Sick, Tasteless, and Twisted Cartoons, published in paperback by contemporary Books in 2002 with no imprint on the spine, no price anywhere, and no editor listed. (So this may have been a special publication for some reason -- maybe one of the periodic attempts to revitalize the eternally-dying NatLamp brand.)

From the copyright page and internal evidence -- viz: the fact that page numbers start from 7, run to 128, disappear for about 120 pages, start up again at 7 and ruin to 128 again -- I believe this is a compilation of three books originally published in 1992, 1994, and 1995. So my guess is that it incorporates '92's Truly Tasteless Cartoons, '94's That's Sick, and '95's Truly Twisted  Cartoons. The book itself explains none of this: there are three cartoons on the back cover, a title page, and a copyright page, but otherwise no text. (The first numbered page -- that first "page 7" -- is actually page 3 of this book.)

And, yes, the theme here is bad taste, as was traditional for NatLamp. The first book (section?) has the best of the '70s era -- not that it's all good, but it's memorable and generally the strongest work from that era. The second book is second-tier stuff from the same era, mostly -- what was left in the vault for a second go-round. And the third book is rougher and newer work, with a bunch of things that don't quite gel but are clearly trying to be offensive. I thought NatLamp was solidly dead by 1995, but these could easily be cartoons from the sputtering last days of the magazine in the 1980s. (I thought I kept reading it to the end, and I don't remember these cartoons or, mostly, their cartoonists, but that doesn't prove anything.)

So what we have here is a book created for a now-unknown commercial opportunity, out of three earlier books that were pretty much just ransacking the vaults of a basically-defunct magazine. The stench of product is all over it -- but if that makes it any more tasteless, how could we possibly complain?

Most of the jokes are juvenile, though many of them are at least arguably funny. They run the gamut, starting with lots of sex jokes (particularly deviant sex and a fair bit of oh-ho-aren't-gay-people-hilarious) and running through bodily fluids, death, and dismemberment. Once again I'm reminded how much Rodrigues focused on amputees and S. Gross on blind men: both are well-represented here.

If you're too young to have read NatLamp in the '70s, there are many things in this book that will offend you. If you did read NatLamp'll probably still be offended by many cartoons, though more likely the half-baked ones towards the end that lazily poke a sensibility without making a good joke out of it. No matter who you are, many of these cartoons will not strike you as funny now, and some of them were never funny for any conceivable sane human being.

But they all are "Truly Sick, Tasteless, and Twisted," which is what we were promised. So good work to the entirely uncredited drones who assembled this in '92 and '94 and '95 and '02. You did your jobs, boys -- oh, you know they were all boys, whatever their ages -- and produced what you were asked to produce. Can we all say the same?

Monday, November 13, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/11

This is one of those weeks where I don't have any books to mention -- nothing came in the mail, I didn't pick up anything at the library, and I haven't even bought books in a while. (I keep looking at the unread shelves and calculating how long it will take to go through all of them.)

So this post is pointless this week: there's nothing to list.

Next week may well be different, so I hope you come back then.

You may now continue your usual Monday morning routine.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Quote of the Week

This song came on in the car one morning recently, and I was struck by how well this middle verse paints a picture of a moment:

"It's been years since I moved away
But at Christmas I come home
And I saw her reflection
In the window of a store
She was talking to herself
Not too simple and not too kind
I walked on by, it was complicated
And it stuck in my mind"
 - They Might Be Giants, "She Thinks She's Edith Head"

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Schulz's Youth by Charles M. Schulz

Success can take a while to be really obvious. Charles M. Schulz launched the daily strip Peanuts in 1950, and eventually it became a massive world-wide phenomenon that took up all of his time and required a number of helpers to do the ancillary work. (Schulz famously wrote every word, drew every line and lettered every panel of Peanuts from beginning to end.)

But, later that decade, he was still doing other odd projects, just in case that daily strip didn't keep growing. One of those projects was a weekly single-panel cartoon for Youth magazine, which he did from 1956 through 1965, mostly under the title "Young Pillars." Youth was the teen-outreach arm of something called the Church of God, which is described as a "religious movement" but probably was a more traditional evangelical organization, with some flavor of Protestant theology behind it. (A movement is not a single thing, and can't be "headquartered," as the Church of God was, "in Anderson, Indiana.") Those strips were collected and re-used and re-purposed over the years, and eventually all brought together in their original form as the book Schulz's Youth in 2007.

So the first thing to note is that these are supposedly humorous cartoons commissioned by a church group, which automatically limits the scope of their humor. (Even the most liberal church puts a lot of things off-limits, and it looks like the Church of God was a vaguely middle-of-the-road mid-century American Protestant organization.) And it's all about good, honest, upstanding church-going teens, so jokes about then-current teen topics like juvenile delinquency were Right Out.

What we get, instead, is a parade of inoffensive mildly amusing cartoons about very bland whitebread Middle America boys and girls, whom even Archie and Scooter would think are a little dull. Not all of the jokes are about "stewardship" and singing in the choir and collection plates and bible commentaries and church picnics and Sunday school...but a whole lot of them are, and calling many of them "jokes" is stretching the word inordinately. These are mostly pleasant drawings of pleasant young Christians being pleasant and doing pleasant things either vaguely church-related or, at the very least, entirely acceptable to a 1950s church for white people.

Did I mention how white and Middle America this book is? It's like a concentrated dose of 1954 directly to the vein, from a world that had not yet discovered irony. It is the book equivalent of a covered dish.

Schulz's drawing is generally good, though some of his adults suffer from really gigantic heads -- maybe because he was trying to differentiate them from the teens. I think the main audience is Schulz scholars and particularly artists who want to study his line -- Peanuts was all the same kind of thing for long stretches, but Schulz's Youth has offices and jalopies and weenie roasts and various bits of ecclesiastical architecture, besides the obvious gangly Schulz teens, who are somewhat like his Peanuts kids but interesting and appealing in their own way.

But if you are a bland Midwestern white Christian offended with The Way Things Are Nowadays, this book may be just the warm bath you want to sink into and forget that other kinds of people actually exist and want to have a say in the world, too.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Collected Hutch Owen, Vol. 1 by Tom Hart

Sometimes you can see someone's ideals collide with reality in real-time. It's most common when looking at a collection of works originally created over several years by someone really politically committed and idealistic -- starting out strident and confident, and then getting knocked about by life.

It's not a happy thing. But the world doesn't fit any ideals we have of it, so it's a necessary process for some people -- to learn that their dreams aren't shared by everyone, and that the world is often as horrible as it can possibly be and never as good as it can possibly be.

So, yeah: Tom Hart's The Collected Hutch Owen. (The "Volume One" is a bit odd, since there haven't been any further volumes in the seventeen years since -- though there have been other book-length stories about Hutch.) It came out in 2000, collecting four thirty-some-page stories from the '90s about a rabble-rousing street poet named, obviously, Hutch Owen.

In the first two stories, his antagonist is a cartoonish business leader, the kind who wants to cut down a grove of pristine trees just to have a place to park his blimp before a parade. (As in: that literally is one piece of that story.) That guy disappears in the back half of the book, as Hutch or Hart grapples with the fact that most people don't want to live in a shack in the woods with no heat, light or running water, printing poetry and trying to sell it on the streets. And that's pretty much what Hutch has to offer: absolute, uncompromising autonomy, unconnected to anyone else except through his art, a lifestyle that five seconds of thought will prove is not something that can scale up to more than one single hard-headed goofball.

Hutch doesn't see it that way because Hutch can't see it that way: his whole point is to kick against the pricks, and Hart set him up to have the maximum number of pricks to kick against. (Going to work at a regular job, as we see, is betrayal of all ideals. I suppose getting married, living in a real house or having children would be tantamount to treason to Hutch.)

Hutch is exhausting, on the page as he would be in real life. He's too earnest, too strident, too in love with his pure vision of what life should be, and utterly unable to make any compromises or understand anyone else's point of view. You're either him or a sellout.

I suspect that pose got harder for Hart to work with as he got older himself: Hutch is cartoonishly successful in the first story and semi-realistically battered down by the last one. But there always new young idealistic people: the universe creates them every day. So there will always be another Hutch Owen to bang his head against the world until he realizes how good it feels to stop.

(The hope, always, is that the head-banging will change the world for the better along the way. Over the long term, that may be true, but in the long term, we're also all dead.)

Hart used an energetic, primitivist 'zine look for these stories, as if they were dashed off quickly (and maybe they actually were). That suits Hutch's disheveled DIY aesthetic perfectly, and Hart clearly sympathizes with Hutch, even if he does come to identify less closely with Hutch by the fourth story here.

If you have sympathy for Hutch's fuck-the-Man attitude, you might like these stories better than I did. If you're substantially to my right politically, you will loathe Hutch with the heat of a thousand fiery suns. So calibrate your interest accordingly.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 11/4

Howdy! As the time this posts, I will be off at my alma mater for a College Search 101 program with my younger son, but know that I am with you in spirit! (And I nearly always set my posts to go at specific times anyway.)

Like every other Monday, I'm going to list the new books I saw in the past week. I got two books in the mail -- go me! -- and here's what looks interesting about them too early on a Sunday morning (as I write this):

Shroud of Eternity is the new novel from Terry Goodkind; it's the second in the Sword of Truth sidebar/continuation series "Sister of Darkness: The Nicci Chronicles" after this January's Death's Mistress. It's coming in hardcover from Tor on January 8th, 2018 -- is 2018 really that close? where does the time go? -- and features, well, Nicci and her compatriots continuing their peregrinations around this particular incarnation of fantasyland.

If you've never read Goodkind before, and are wondering what kind of fantasy writer he is, let me quote for you the first sentence of this novel:
Rotting human flesh glistened in the sunlight, discolored by the bruised hues of putrefaction.

That kind of fantasy writer. If that's your thing, he's very popular, and you can get in at something like a beginning with Death's Mistress, which presumably will be out in paperback at the same time as this new book. So go to it.

The Nine is the first in a urban fantasy series -- set in a city named Corma, in what may be our world in the near future or some other world in some other time -- by Tracy Townsend, coming from Prometheus as a trade paperback November 14th. A "black market courier" -- is there really that much courier work that you can specialize in that much of a sub-set of it? fascinating! -- loses a magical book to nefarious forces, falls in with several others, and learns said book is A Really Big Deal. As in, written by God big deal, possibly ending the world big deal -- that kind of big deal.

It has quotes from Max Gladstone, Curtis C. Chen, and Sam J. Miller, a really snazzy cover, and, despite my snark, doesn't sound like anyone else's books, which is entirely a good thing.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Quote of the Week

A line I have used, far out of context and far more often than I probably should:

"So, what you're telling me, Percy, is that something you have never seen is slightly less blue than something else you have never seen."
 - Edmund Blackadder, Duke of Edinburgh, "The Queen of Spain's Beard"

I find it can be particularly good in political arguments, or anything that descends into "No True Scotsman" territory.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux

It's not unreasonable that a book that took a year to live and some significant time afterward to write would also take a substantial time to read. So I didn't mind that it took me six weeks to wander through Paul Theroux's late-80s train travelogue of China, Riding the Iron Rooster.

I started this book on a trip of my own -- off to the "mothership" of my company, in darkest Eagan, Minnesota, back in mid-September -- and didn't get much read during that week. It's a longish book for me these days, with four hundred and fifty pages of dense type, and I'm still trying to figure out when and how to read more when I'm only commuting two days a week. (If I save two hours of commuting each way, and only sleep one hour later, surely that should mean I have three more hours in the day, right? Somehow, it doesn't happen that way.)

Theroux spent what seems like close to a year during 1986 and 1987 in China, and he doesn't explain how he managed that: his travel books never talk about the rest of his life, or his family, just the places he's traveling in and the people he meets there. My assumption is that this book actually records a series of shorter trips, of a few weeks or a month at a time, and that he flew in and out to pick up from where he left off sometime later. But that could be wrong: maybe he just settled into a Chinese city for a week or three at a time, working on whatever other book he had going in 1986 (knowing publishing schedules, I'd guess 1989's My Secret History, though 1987's The White Man's Burden is more thematically appropriate), and then had a few days on the train to the next city to gather material for this book. It's probably some combination of that -- I doubt he really stayed in China for 12+ months solid, but he never explains those details in his travel books.

The first chapter, unusually, is about getting to China, but, more characteristically, it's all by rail. Theroux started from London -- "where I happened to be," as he archly puts it on page one -- and joined a package railway tour through the USSR as a way to get to Mongolia and then China itself. The first long chapter is with the tour group, across Europe and Russian Asia, as he dodges questions about what he does for a living and snoops on his (pretty dull) fellow package tourists.

(Theroux, like any self-respecting travel-book writer, disdains mere tourists and thinks of what he does as travel, something higher and better and available only to the purer sort of person who doesn't have to get back to a real job after one or three weeks.)

Then he gets into China itself, which of course is gigantic. I think people, no matter where they live, have skewed views of the large countries of the world, thinking everything else smaller than it is -- the American's view of China is of a place smaller than the US and a lot like his favorite "Chinese" restaurant, and an Indian's view of America is of somewhere nowhere near as expansive and varied his his own country. China is, of course, gigantic, and full of specific places and people -- Tibetan and Han and Mongolian and Manchu and plenty of others -- meaning anything like a correct view will be a kaleidoscope. Theroux's style, writing about a specific time and place, does help to keep that reality in view.

Also, China is long-civilized and most of it has been transformed entirely by human activity over thousands of years. This trip was before more recent engineering marvels like the Three Gorges Dam or the explosive growth of the South Chinese industrial cities, but Theroux regularly comments on how odd it is to travel through a vast countryside that's almost entirely cultivated: fields march in neat tiers up hillsides next to tamed and emptied rivers, and hard-working Chinese farmers are ubiquitous.

Like other Theroux travel books I've read, Riding the Iron Rooster is organized by journeys: each chapter is about a specific trip, on a specific itinerary, at a particular time of year. He may be a bit vague about how he got there and what else he may be doing, but he's very focused on what's going on in each place as he reaches it, and what it's like to be on those crowded, rough railways for each leg. He has Chinese minders some of the time, but he mostly wears them down -- as he presents himself, he's happy to keep riding hard trains across the country, and not trying to maintain a regular life, so his aim to be free to wander about and talk to random locals is fulfilled most of the time.

Any travel book is a snapshot of a moment in time, this one more than most. The China of 1986 was rapidly modernizing, still feeling the shock of the Cultural Revolution and trying to make up for lost time. And there was that mid-80s wonder of what would happen to the "Communist" countries of the world, as varied as they were. Eventually, the Warsaw Block fell, one by one, to their own internal problems, but China, typically, kept on its own path and neither Westernized nor fell behind. (Remember the old post-Soviet joke about glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring)? That the USSR got glasnost without perestroika and fell apart, while wiser China picked perestroika without glasnost and thrived.)

Theroux is a bit grumpy, and definitely prefers the rural to the urban. So this may have been his last, best chance to see a China that was closer to his preferences -- that's a country that has been urbanizing, in fits and starts but solidly, for thousands of years. Typically, he's happiest in his last chapter, about a trip to Lhasa in Tibet -- where he got to drive much of the way, where he was as far from the big cities of China as it's possible to be within the country, where the locals are a conquered people and unhappy with that lot in their Buddhist way, where he finds a "city" the size of a medium-sized town with "medieval" plumbing and the other primitive accouterments he always perks up for.

Riding the Iron Rooster depicts a China that is not quite the same as the one of today -- but many of the people and types Theroux met then are still around in contemporary China, and the past is always the parent of the present. Any travel book is outdated by the day it's published, since those people are no longer in those places doing those things, but the best travel books, like this one, tell us things about people and places that are tied to time but not limited by it.