Thursday, September 28, 2017

Hershey by Michael D'Antonio

Another case of plans dashed: my family takes a vacation to Hersheypark every summer, to ride roller coasters and engage in general frivolity just before my sons go back to school. The last two years, the window has gotten very small, since we go after Pennsylvania schools are open but before Thing 1 (my older son) starts classes at our local community college.

But there's a day or two in that window at the beginning of the last week of August, and it's usually still hot, so we can do all of the water-park stuff as well.


This year, I intended to read Michael D'Antonio's biography of the man who made the town of Hershey and pretty much all of the things in it while in that town, mostly sitting in the shade in that water park in between cooling off myself. But, in the actual event, our day in Hershey saw near-steady light rain and a high temperature that just grazed 70 Fahrenheit. So the water park section was thoroughly closed, and sitting anywhere to read pleasantly was not in the cards.

I did get a bit of Hershey read on the drive down and back -- my wife hates to have anyone else drive her, and I much prefer to read than to stare at a road, so it's a great pairing -- but I mostly read it the same way I read nearly everything these days, on a train to and from Manhattan.

Milton Snavely Hershey was born in 1857 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the son of a dreamer father and a mother who was the hard-driving scion of a locally prominent family. He went into candy-making as a young man, and, after a couple of near-successes (meaning failures), finally hit it big first with a caramel business and then bootstrapped that into the first major milk-chocolate manufacturing operation in the Americas. As that chocolate company became successful, he built up a whole series of related businesses and operations around it to make a model town -- a town named after him, with subsidized streetcars and cultural venues, with a free park that eventually turned into a major tourist attraction, and with a whole panoply of other businesses that ran at a bare profit or a slight loss to making living in Hershey that much more pleasant and attractive.

And he put the bulk of his ownership of all of that -- the massively growing chocolate business, and all of the other activities to make Hershey a model town -- into a trust, and handed over ownership of that trust to a school for orphan boys that he set up. By the time he died in 1945, the school trust solidly owned both the hugely profitable candy business and the conglomerate of all of those other Hershey entities, and was on track to have the largest endowment of any private school in the US.

So Hershey was possibly the most successful American Utopian that ever existed: he had a vision for a working, successful community, and built it. That town is still there, still thriving, over a hundred years later. He's also the quintessential story of a Gilded Age entrepreneur who gave away his wealth, even more than Carnegie. It's the kind of story that could make even a died-in-wool socialist grudgingly say that some capitalists, maybe, aren't necessarily all bad.

D'Antonio tells that story well, both the early years of struggle and the later years of ever-increasing success. Unusually for a biography, the reader will be more interested in Hershey's later years -- no one really cares that much about Milton S. Hershey as a person, but we want to know how he founded the town and park and factory, and how that all worked out in the end.

If I could force the current wave of American capitalists to read any one book, this would be it -- Hershey made mostly good choices, and always focused on the good of the community rather than his own wants. We could use a lot more of that these days. Admittedly, he was hugely paternalistic -- partially that was because of the times, but there clearly also was an element of wanting to control and (benevolently) guide his "children," both the workers in his town and the actual orphans.

Still: a major capitalist who gave up his entire fortune and business to build a massive philanthropic vehicle for a very particular and personally important purpose. I suspect Bill Gates knows this story, but not enough others.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Glister by Andi Watson

The fields of Young Adult have been calling to comics-makers for the past decade or so: a seductive song of a market with a large, appreciative audience, a deep love for comics, a tropism for evergreen books rather than ephemeral pamphlets, and the chance to actually make some money telling stories pretty close to (or, sometimes, exactly like) the ones those cartoonists are already doing. All of that is hugely positive for a creative person, so it's easy to see why so many have fled the Wednesday Crowd for the Scholastic Book Fair Mob.

But it does mean those of us who aren't as plugged into the YA/kid-comics world often don't even see those works, which is a shame.

Luckily, sometimes comics-world publishers will realize this and repackage YA comics in a way that makes them pop up on our radar.

Case in point: Andi Watson's Glister, a series of four small books from Walker, clearly aimed at that Scholastic Book Fair audience (its bullseye would be smart, thoughtful girls in late elementary school, but those of us who fit the profile less well -- meaning not at all -- can enjoy them just as much) that came out in 2010 and 2011. Dark Horse collected those four books into one comics-shop-friendly trade paperback, called simply Glister, in July of this year. (I think it's actually more complicated than that: the first Glister book was a slightly reworked version of Watson's first Glister story, which came out as three small comics from Image in 2007. So everything goes around in circles if you wait long enough.)

Glister Butterworth is a smart young girl living with her father in the family's deeply eccentric ancestral hall, somewhere in the kind of rural England that only exists in books for young people. She's a magnet for the weird and peculiar, according to the blurb, but I'd say it's more that she lives in a world stuffed full with the weird and peculiar -- it's not attracted to her in particular, but is just lying about the countryside in vast heaps, ready to fall over and cause trouble at any moment.

Again, Glister collects four separate stories (plus activity pages and other sidebar stuff). Glister deals with a haunted teapot, the unexpected (and extended) absence of her family home on a world tour, the search for her mother in the land of Faerie, and her attempt to grow an extended family tree (this is both a metaphor and the absolute truth) to have more family members to spend time with. None of those things turn out as she expects, or as the reader entirely anticipates, but they do all turn out for the best, in the end. It's that kind of book: the one about how much fun it would be to grow up weird, somewhere unique with unusual things happening all around all the time.

If you were a bookish kid, you probably had at least one favorite book like that. And Glister will be that for at least several thousand newer readers, which is a good thing. And even if you're no longer a kid, as long as you remember that kid you once were, you can enjoy the stories of Glister Butterworth just as much now.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Transit by Ted McKeever

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.

Case in point: Ted McKeever.

I had McKeever in my head as one of the great comics wild men, coming out of nowhere with striking, original, and bizarre work in the late '80s, briefly flourishing, and then disappearing from the scene entirely. In my head, he was in the company of Marc Hansen and Bob Burden. Maybe there was a hint of "too pure for this world," or some back-patting that I liked his stuff even though the Great Unwashed didn't.

That is not exactly true. In fact, it's wrong in several ways: the person who lost touch was me. McKeever's been out there the whole time, working away in comics. He moved on to things I didn't pay much attention to, but that's all me, not him.

So I remembered Transit and Eddy Current and Plastic Forks and Metropol, but I'd forgotten he went from there to illustrating part of Rachel Pollack's run on Doom Patrol in the years of High Vertigo. (Which is a knock on me: I was fan of both of them at the time, and I'm pretty sure I owned most of those comics.) And, well, it's been more than twenty years since then, and he's had new comics work out pretty much every one of those years, according to Wikipedia.

Also, because of that misconception, I had the vague sense that Transit was incomplete because it was the last thing McKeever did on his way out of comics. Again: totally wrong. Transit was McKeever's first comics work, and it was left incomplete for reasons that aren't explained in this 2008 collection. (But I think a huge part of the explanation, for those of us who were around in the '80s, is that his publisher was Vortex.)

Anyway, Transit had five issues back in 1987-88, and then, twenty years later, those five issues and "the lost finale" (from the different art style and radical shift in tone, this was "lost" in the sense of "never actually drawn and possibly not written until the 21st century") were collected into one volume as part of a larger reprinting/rediscovery of McKeever's work from Image's Shadowline imprint.

(The spine calls this book Ted McKeever Library Book 1: Transit The Complete Series, for you sticklers.)

Like those other early McKeever books, it's the story of an ordinary guy in an odd urban setting, with extraordinary events cascading around him and a cast of quirky weirdos and creepy villains. It doesn't hold together as well as say Eddy Current does, in large part because it didn't have an ending for twenty years and now has one that's very muted and distant, as if pieced together by scholars a hundred years later from fragmentary contemporary accounts.

The guy is Spud. We see him in a subway, casually vandalizing the posters of mayoral candidates. Then he's shot (at?) by a cop and finds himself in the path of a train. For several pages he seems to be dead, and the reader starts to think he will not be our protagonist after all. But Spud does show up again -- he's going to have much worse happen to him over the next five issues than just being shot and run over by a subway.

There is, of course, a corrupt man running for mayor. This was the '80s, so I'm afraid that he's a preacher. And he's backed by the usual really fat shadowy master-of-everything of this city, who sits in his palatial office high up in an office tower. They are both not particularly characterized beyond cackling about the evil things they are doing and plan to keep doing. But McKeever had a very Munoz-esque -- maybe filtered through Keith Giffen, maybe not -- appeal to his art at this point, and evil men in dark rooms brings out the best of that art style.

Transit is not a tightly plotted book: it starts from Spud and the nasty mayoral election, and wanders around its grimy city from there, bringing in more oddball characters and bouncing between energetic scenes that don't always completely track to each other. It always makes it way back to Spud and the evil guys eventually, more or less, but each loop seems to have less and less to do with the initial setup. And then, of course, we hit the "lost finale,"a series of quick scenes of the characters, to close out all of their stories and provide something like an ending. I don't think it's the ending McKeever was aiming for back in 1988, but Transit feels like a book that was plotted as it went along, so I may be making an unwarranted assumption to say he was aiming for any particular ending.

In any case, it's done now, such as it is, and available in one volume. (Or was, a decade ago. It may be harder to find now.) McKeever got more controlled and organized from here, but Transit shows the bones of the later stories -- it shows that McKeever was on his track from the beginning.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/23

It can be a burden having an excessively tidy mind. You need to do things just so, and to follow precedents exactly, even when that's a bit silly. But you do get things done, and you get them done consistently. On balance, it works out.

So I post every Monday morning to list any new books I've gotten in the prior week. If I haven't been shopping much, and the wheels of Big-Publishing Publicity have been grinding away in directions other than mine, that can be a short list. Often, a list so short that it would be impossible to be any shorter.

And, yes, this is another one of those weeks. I probably should figure out something else I can write about in this space in those situations. Or maybe I already have -- I'm writing at length about the process, or the lack of process, which is fascinating to me, though I'm sure not so to you.

But, then, this is my blog, not yours, isn't it?

I'm next going to try finishing up posts on the three books I read last week -- if I get them done, they'll go up later this week, spaced out to make it look like there's more content here. That will at least be something more substantial that this post. And then I'll be back next week, to list books or vamp for a few paragraphs, as the mood takes me.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Notes, Vol. 1: Born to Be a Larve by Boulet

Boulet is one of those European Cartoonists who are so cool they only need one name, like Herge. (And several others -- I feel like there's a lot of them, but can't be bothered to research the question right now.) Or maybe it's not a coolness thing -- perhaps it helps them avoid the social shame of being known publicly as a cartoonist? Or maybe it just fits better on a comics page as a signature?
So many possibilities.

Anyway, his real name is Gilles Roussel, but he works in comics as Boulet. And he started a blog in 2004, which seems to be what really pushed his career forward and gave him some momentum. (2004 was a good year for blogs -- most of the years since, not so much.)

The blog has been collected in several volumes in French, under the overall title Notes. (Wikipedia lists four volumes, but that's only through 2010. Actually, that Wikipedia entry seems to stop listing anything as of about 2010, which leads me to believe it hasn't been updated this decade.) Last year, Soaring Penguin Press -- which I've never heard of before, though I immediately like them for their name -- had the first volume translated and published it in the UK. And somehow one copy of that edition found its way to an independent bookstore in New Jersey and finally into my hands.

That book is Notes, Vol. 1: Born to Be a Larve. (Not sure why it uses the French spelling "larve" rather than the English "larva," but that's just my editor-brain kicking in when no one asked it to.) And it collects roughly the first year of that comics-blog, plus some framing pages of Boulet talking to a woman (his editor? a friend? another comic-blogger? she doesn't seem to be a girlfriend,  and I can't find anywhere she's named) about assembling and organizing this very book you're reading.

The new material (well, "new" as of 2008 when the book was assembled) comments on and contextualizes the older blog entries -- this is a fancy way to say that Boulet and his unnamed female interlocutor talk about the story on the previous pages, and Boulet sometimes gives more details about those stories.

Because this is the kind of blog that's based on real life. (They all supposedly were, and it can be hard to tell how much any individual blog is "real," I suppose, but this is mostly day-to-day life-of-a-cartoonist stuff.) There's some stories about conventions, and some stories about daily life as a cartoonist, and the inevitable here's-the-dream-I-had-last-night-because-I-can't-think-of-anything-else-this-week entry. All of the old blog entries are in color -- some seem to be watercolored, and some are more traditional spot color (by Boulet, presumably) over pen-lines. The new stuff is mostly black-and-white, except for the orange of Boulet's hair. (Which is a fun design element, and also shows how much his style loosened up between the initial blog entries and this book.)

Some of the stories are a single page, but they're generally longer than that -- enough to tell a little story, or run through a series of events. The stories themselves are not dates, though Boulet mentions several times how much trouble it was to find all of them and put them in the correct chronological order.

So this is a book of parts -- Boulet explicitly worries about that in his framing material up front, and revisits the idea at the end -- like a book of short stories. It's all things that happened to this one French cartoonist (even if some of them, as with many creative folks, were things that happened entirely in his head) over the course of a year more than a decade ago.

(By the way, the blog is still going, and there's an English version now -- the latter is available here.)

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. But, for the rest of us, this is a neat book by an interesting creator, and for other comics-makers, it's an intriguing look into a life in comics in a somewhat different market and ecosystem.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

I Told You So by Shannon Wheeler

I can't claim any connection to the cartoonist Shannon Wheeler, despite the name similarity. Oh, he lives in Portland, as does my brother -- but I think that's as close as it gets. The Wheelers are a vast clan, with our fingers in all of the world's pies, and Shannon's branch is very distant from my own.

But, still, he is a Wheeler, and thus one of the best in the world at whatever he chooses to do, by the power of that exceptional name. In his case, first there was the hit comic Too Much Coffee Man (in several formats, for a long time, and not quite done even now). But he's also been working seriously on New Yorker-style single-panel cartoons for at least a decade now, with some success in that fine magazine.

And, since he's a guy who publishes the cartoons he makes -- a man wants to eat, and his audiences wants to laugh -- I've seen two books of those cartoons so far: I Thought You Would Be Funnier and I Don't Get It.

I don't actually know how many of those books there are, now -- I have a vague sense Wheeler has been putting out one a year, since since when or until when is less clear -- but I found and read another one last month: I Told You So, published in 2012.

This one is loosely organized by place -- San Francisco, New York, Portland, The Suburbs, The Internets, and Unexplored Places -- which are, more or less, where the respective cartoons take place. It's as good an organizing principle as any other, I suppose.

And it's full of single-panel cartoons, in the arch, somewhat artificial New Yorker style. (All art is artificial, of course -- that's what makes it art. So that is in no way a dig.) Wheeler has a classic cartoony style here, full of tones and soft edges, that primes the reader to look for this kind of humor. (Well, it does for me, at least.)

Again, he is a Wheeler, and therefore excellent at what he does. It's no surprise he was good at this kind of cartoon. If you like New Yorker-y cartoons, Wheeler has a number of these little books full of them, and so far I can recommend them all.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

It's impossible to read everything. Even worse. it's often impossible to keep reading the new books by all of the writers you've liked in the past -- unless you're incredibly demanding and picky, I suppose. Things pile up, and then you realize it's been close to a decade since you read a book by that writer you still think of as a favorite.

And that brings me to Martha Wells. I read her first four novels as they came out, and bought several of them for the SFBC. Then she dove into a trilogy, and I was putting them on a shelf to read, all together, for what I hoped would be a SFBC omnibus. I don't know if anyone else ever did that omnibus, but the door slammed shut behind me before I had the chance. I still wanted to read the trilogy, but maybe not right then -- it would remind me too much of what didn't happen. Then Wells jumped into another series, about winged folks in a different, less Earth-based fantasy world -- it sounded interesting, and more of a stretch for her writing, which is all good, but...I just never picked up one of those books (despite even going to see Wells read from one of them at the Reno Worldcon).

What did it take to get me back? Well, Wells tried SF for what I think is the first time. And she wrote a short book -- probably a novella -- which length I find very appealing these busy days. And, probably most importantly, it was a story told in the first person by a semi-human mechanical that calls itself "Murderbot," and that triggered my old John Sladek Tik-Tok tropism.

And, yes, that book was called All Systems Red. It looks to be the beginning of a new series: I hope it is.

Murderbot is our narrator, and it has a wonderful voice. Murderbot should not have free will -- its kind are designed not to -- but its kind are also made as cheaply as possible to maximize their corporate owner's profitability, so glitches do happen. And so Murderbot does have free will, which it could use to kill people. But it doesn't really want to kill people; it mostly wants to spend as much time as possible consuming media products and not worrying about its own life.

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

There is a reason why Murderbot calls itself that, and the reader will learn that reason before the end of All Systems Red. But it's a good reason, and Wells sets it up perfectly, so I won't tell you here.

Anyway, the job of a SecUnit -- what Murderbot is, officially -- is to protect and defend exploratory teams on new worlds, as they figure out if it's worthwhile for their parent organizations to bid on colonizing/mining/exploiting that particular world. Murderbot is with a small team, of just five humans, and is the only SecUnit assigned to them. There's one larger team far away on the same planet, but that's it -- it should be a fairly easy job, protecting them from dangerous fauna.

But it turns out their info-packet on this planet has some very large and glaring holes in it, such as a very nasty tunneling predator and entire regions of the map. And the other, much better equipped team suddenly goes radio-silent. Murderbot is not happy with having to work harder, but it wants to protect this team, even if it isn't forced to do so. It turns out that Murderbot likes them.

But will that be enough?

All Systems Red is short and zippy, moving along at pace and driven by the grumpy voice of Murderbot. From the series title, I have my fingers crossed that we will get more adventures of Murderbot in this medium-future ultra-capitalist universe -- sooner rather than later, I hope.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/16

For those of you keeping track at home -- are there people who even read blogs nowadays? I tend to think I'm typing this mostly for my own memory, like a diary that's ostensibly in public -- this is the third week in a row with no books in the mail.

Since I just spent a very busy week alternately in a gigantic office building on the Minnesota prairies and a quite nice hotel attached to the Mall of America, that's just fine with me. There will be other books later: there are always more books.

But, this week, I'm not going to be the one telling you about any of them.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Troll Bridge by Neil Gaiman and Collen Doran

I didn't remember Neil Gaiman's story "Troll Bridge" well. In fact, if you'd asked me about it, I would have assumed some confusion on your part with Terry Pratchett's short story "Troll Bridge," and tried to lead you in that direction.

But story titles can't be copyrighted, and even good friends can use the same ones without stress or strife. I'd forgotten it, but Gaiman did also write a story titled "Troll Bridge," originally for the Datlow/Windling anthology Snow White, Rose Red in 1993 and collected a number of times since then. And, since Gaiman has a huge audience in comics that might not be as familiar with his just-prose works -- or, at least, there are publishers willing to bet that's the case -- a number of his short stories have been turning into short graphic novels from Dark Horse over the past few years.

Last year it was Troll Bridge's turn, adapted and drawn by Colleen Doran.

I'm not sure short stories need to turn into graphic novels, but they're about the right length -- a twenty-page piece of prose can be a forty-eight-page graphic novel and fit comfortably into that size, without the usual Procrustean manipulations to fit the format. So, given that it's possible, and anything both possible and likely profitable will happen, the only question left is: how well does this story work, translated into this new medium?

It works pretty well, actually. "Troll Bridge" is a story of episodes -- a boy meets a troll under a bridge near his home, somewhere in then-rural England, and then other things happen over time -- and that translates to comics just as well as it works in prose. The troll itself, as seen on the cover, is traditional, which is fine for this twisted-traditional story. And the boy looks much like Gaiman might have at the same age, which is of course the point, as in so many Gaiman stories. (He works from material based on his own life a lot more than I think he gets credit for.)

So this boy meets a troll, who wants to eat his life. The boy would rather his life not be eaten, so he makes a deal. And this is a fairy tale, so that deal comes out badly in the end -- fairy tales only reward the heroes who are strong and true throughout, and have the luck to be born third. (And not even them, all of the time -- fairy tales are one of our bloodiest types of story.)

I'm not sure I've ever gotten whatever lesson "Troll Bridge" has to impart -- unless it's "keep away from bridges, because trolls lurk there and will eat you" -- which may be why I keep forgetting it. Burt this is a good adaptation of that story, keeping the flavor of Gaiman's narration and adding Doran's pastorally-colored and carefully seen vision of his world. I'm still not 100% convinced this story needed to be adapted, but, if it was going to be anyway, this is definitely a successful version.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Contrary To Popular Believe by Joey Green

We all need something to read when we're doing something else. (Well, there may be people who don't read, but they are poor, stunted things, and we don't want to think about them.)

For a couple of months, the book I had in the smallest room of the house was Contrary to Popular Belief, written by Joey Green (of Wash Your Hair With Whipped Cream fame). It contains 250 things that some people believe, and explains why each of them is wrong in a single page.

Sure, I knew most of this already. (And quibbled with some of it; Green is happy to elide complications if it makes a better zinger.) But that makes a book like this even more fun: that smug feeling that you already know better than most people. If you already think you know things that most people misunderstand, this is the book for you -- and you get bonus points for everything you know that Green passes over.

This is not a deep book, or a serious one. But it's a book that sets things straight, which is entirely a positive thing. Its breezy, friendly style may make a few thousand more people learn the truth than otherwise would, which is entirely good. And I didn't actually find anything wrong in it: just things that are less simple than Green presents them. Considering the whole world is less simple than can be presented in a impulse-buy book, that's not too shabby.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Dragons: The Modern Infestation by Pamela Wharton Blanpied

Look -- you know I love fake non-fiction, right? The kind of books that seem to have come from a world somewhat similar to our own, but substantially changed?

Well, for years I've been saying that Pamela Wharton Blanpied's Dragons: The Modern Infestation was one of the best of that small category, along with Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail. But I only read Dragons once, a good twenty years ago. What if I remembered it wrong?

So I got a new copy and read it again. And, of course, I was right all along: Dragons: The Modern Infestation is wonderful. It's also sneakier and smarter than I remembered, which implies I might have missed half of the fun the first time around.

Dragons, in the world where it belongs, is a serious academic book, full of citations and references to the peer-reviewed literature. It's set in a world where dragons began reappearing perhaps two generations ago -- seventy or eighty years or so. Their numbers are increasing, and they are unstoppable apex predators: deeply intelligent and cunning, huge, strong, flexible, flying fire-breathing creatures possessed of a nearly supernatural "mime" ability that makes adult dragons essentially impossible to target or kill. They can and do push mankind entirely aside to protect the places they want, and caused a years-long reign of terror in Europe when one dragon was wounded by a human attack.

(I should note that "two generations ago" is from the publication of this second edition of Dragons, and that it's set in what I estimate is an alternate near-future. Satellite imagery has been used for several multi-year Dragon Censuses, making the emergence of dragons pretty clearly in the second half of the twentieth century and the "now" of this book published in 1980/1996 somewhere in the 2020s or 30s.)

Blanpied clearly has a complicated backstory for this world in her head, and it comes out in parts during Modern Infestation, as we learn about dragons themselves and the few plucky researchers who have contributed to our slight knowledge of them. She smartly avoids real-world politics entirely, which makes this nearly forty-year-old book entirely fresh: all of the nations of the world are in the same boat dealing with dragons, and so their individual squabbles don't matter to this discipline.

Modern Infestation is so-named because there was a Pre-Medieval Infestation, and Blanpied's fictional researchers, though mostly anatomists and linguists and behaviorists, do have some interest in the history of that previous burst of draconic activity. But this book is concerned with what can be known about modern dragons, and so is based primarily upon the fieldwork of a small number of (named and characterized) researchers. So it opens with a chapter outlining the history of the Modern Infestation generally, hitting the major events. The second chapter, the bulk of the book, covers Anatomical and Behavioral Characteristics, including sketches of draconic anatomy and official-looking charts of draconic locations. (Some of those graphics are printed less than wonderfully in the current edition, which seems to be print-on-demand. It's all comprehensible, but it could be crisper and darker.) The third chapter contains excerpts from the papers of several foundational dragon experts, including some notes from (rare, and usually unsatisfying) conversations with dragons.

Dragons: The Modern Infestation is smart and deep and the best possible kind of quirky, a book like no other. It's a short book, but not a quick read -- Blanpied packs a lot into her sentences, and writes with tongue deeply in cheek at all times. 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.

This is a funny book, a thoughtful book, and a wonderful book. I know of nothing else like it at all. Blanpied, for all I can tell, wrote just this one book, but she did her job perfectly -- so why continue after that?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Black Dahlia by Rick Geary

I'm in danger of turning into a broken record on this subject: Geary has been doing the same thing brilliantly for so long that I've run out of different ways to say it.

Black Dahlia is the seventh in his "Treasury of XXth Century Murder," which followed eight similar books in the "Treasury of Victorian Murder" (and one even earlier book, The Treasury of Victorian Murder, Vol. 1, a miscellaneous collection that was the prototype for the whole sub-career). Each one is a roughly comic-book-sized hardcover, of about eighty pages, telling the story of one famous historical murder. He's done Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield, Jack the Ripper and H.H. Holmes, Sacco and Vanzetti and several more not as well-known in the 21st century. Each book is carefully researched and filled with maps and diagrams of the towns and murder locations -- all drawn by Geary in his precise but puckish style.

The new book for 2016 -- he's had one of these for most years this century -- covers the famous LA murder case from 1947, as previously retold by James Ellroy and countless others. As always, Geary isn't here to fictionalize the case, or make up his own ending -- he wants to present the true story, as best it can be determined, in all of its complexity and confusion, and lay out what might have happened, if that's clear at all. It isn't, in this case: whoever killed Elizabeth Short got away with it cleanly, and we'll probably never know who he was.

Some of these books are more about the before, and some are more about the after -- some murders have a huge media life, with shocking revelations and new suspects, and some just don't. The Black Dahlia case basically went nowhere, so Geary doesn't have a lot of after to work with. But Elizabeth Short did have a complicated life for her twenty-two years, which means Black Dahlia starts with the murder and then moves back to tell Short's life story, or the pieces of it that seem to be relevant to her death.

Geary seems to be drawn to the unsolved, complicated cases the most -- not the ones where we know what happened and who did it, but the ones where we can almost tell what happened, where there are some suspicions but not proof, the ones that are a bit frustrating, the ones where we're pretty sure a murderer completely got away with it. Black Dahlia is deeply in that mode: whether Short was killed by a gangster or an angry boyfriend, he got away entirely. (And he's probably dead now, which is as much getting away with anything that anyone can ever do.)

As always, Geary's eye is focused and distinct. He gives us the people and places of the time -- the right hairstyles, the right cars, the right streetscapes -- to build the world that Elizabeth Short lived and died in. A series of books about old murders might seem frivolous or macabre, but death is just a lens to look at life. And Geary is excellent at telling us about both life and death.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/9

Hey guys! When I get books in the mail, I write about them here, every Monday morning.

When I don't get any books in the mail that week, I write about how I didn't get any books, which is pretty meta, and probably self-indulgent.

This is a week of Option #2.

That's actually pretty good for me: I'm flying out to Eagan, Minnesota tomorrow morning for a long week of meetings at what we affectionately call "the mothership." So I have stuff to get done today that is a bit more important than blogging.

And thus I'm happy I can finish up this blog post quickly on a Sunday morning.

Just like this.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Kyle Baker, Cartoonist, Volume 2: Now With More Bakers

I used to be a huge Kyle Baker fan -- I loved his first two books The Cowboy Wally Show and Why I Hate Saturn, and equally loved his early comics-illustration work on The Shadow and the wonderful but criminally-forgotten Justice, Inc. But any half-decent creator doesn't keep doing the same thing forever, so Baker moved on from that stuff to a long career -- some were things I really liked, some not so much. At some point I either lost track of him or his work stopped clicking with me: he was an early enthusiastic pioneer of digital drawing tools, and I was a typical grumpy old fan, liking the old style better.

But the one good thing about having a flood that destroys 10,000 books is that you can re-buy a lot of the stuff you loved again, and have a good excuse to read it again before you put it on the real shelves. (Which, by the way, are now on the second floor of my house, far away from any but the most apocalyptic floods.)

So I've been buying and reading Baker's books again, across his whole career, since sometime last year -- first Kyle Baker, Cartoonist last December (the launch of his initial foray into self-publishing, just over a decade ago) and then a post covering three books at the beginning of this year. I've been buying his books faster than that, of course -- that's the way it works, if you like books at all -- so I've had other choices.

And so I came to Kyle Baker, Cartoonist, Volume 2, the direct sequel to the first one. Baker published this in 2005, when he had three children who look to all be under the age of five. (I think he has one or two more now; the man clearly relishes challenges.) Some of it seems to want to be animation -- there are a few longish wordless stories up front told in large uniformly-sized panels that would make fun animated shorts -- and that was one of the things I was grumpy about with Baker the first time around. This time, though, it's just fine: they're funny pieces, and they work as comics even if the feeling tends more to storyboards.

This book has a lot of other comics, too -- shorter multi-panel pieces as well as a lot of single-panel gags, first covering a wide range of ideas and topics and then, in the last third, focusing on his young family. Family comics can get treacly or maudlin pretty quickly, but Baker made these right in the middle of his life, so they're specific and grounded in what his actual kids were doing at the time, and real kids are always quirkier and more bizarre than the standard gags about them.

Mostly, this book reminds me that Baker is really funny a lot of the time, and especially good at pulling material out of the world around him. (Why I Hate Saturn was the same way, from a vastly different period of his life.) It also makes me wonder what his now-teenaged kids are up to, and if he's working away at an updated look at their lives now. I'm sure he'd make that just as much fun.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

White Noise by Don DeLillo

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.

And so I came back to White Noise in the summer of 2017, twenty years or so after I read it the first time. White Noise was more than a decade old then, and it's more than thirty now -- I read a semi-fancy "25th Anniversary Edition," with French flaps and evocative cover art from cartoonist Michael Cho.  (When I have a choice, I take the edition with work by a cartoonist; I like to encourage them.)

There are things that date the novel: the central section is partially a portrait of misleading, confusing information that comes in dribs and drabs, to people disconnected from their usual media, and how new stories spread by word of mouth. Our modern media landscape is much quicker and more ubiquitous -- though just as misleading, just as confusing, and just as prone to have people latch on to the detail that resonates with them. So the how is not quite the way it would happen today. But the what is still perfectly true and resonant.

I found that to be true of White Noise throughout: it's a novel of great sentences, fine paragraphs, excellent scenes, and lurking icebergs of meaning that float in the text, daring the reader to dive down and investigate them. It's a novel of fear, most of all: existential fear, immediate fear, quiet long-term fear, both sudden panic and the fear that always lurks in the back of your mind.

What's it about? DeLillo shows us one year in the life of Jack Gladney, chair of the Hitler Studies department at the College-on-the-Hill, and his blended family. One year of regular, ordinary life, with kids of various ages and problems and concerns. And the Airborne Toxic Event in the middle of that year, the quintessential lit-fic Outside Context Problem that shakes up those lives and leaves Jack and his family to grapple with who they are and where they fit in the world in its aftermath.

Hitler Studies is both a DeLillo joke and DeLillo being coldly earnest -- it's a shocking phrase, and the way Gladney teaches it, from the glances we see, is also unsettling. But it's part of DeLillo's overall critique of modern life's conflation of medium and message. White Noise is not an exercise in Hitler Studies itself. But the fact that its protagonist invented that field is deeply important: several characters note that Gladney, especially outside his usual college environment, is an insignificant man by nature, one who found something to make him more important, more dangerous, than he really is.

I'm not going to explicate White Noise here. It is a masterpiece, a major book by a major American writer -- probably DeLillo's best. (I haven't re-read Libra in as long; that's the other main contender.) If you haven't read it, you should. It's about modernity in similar ways to good science fiction novels of the same era, critiquing a somewhat different set of ideas and mores than the cyberpunks but working to parallel ends. And, again: you can only spend so much time drinking small beer; the true firewater will show you things you didn't realize before.

(In case anyone tries to draw a conclusion I didn't mean from that last paragraph, let me note that my last dose of the true firewater was Kelly Link's Get In Trouble. Masterpieces are found everywhere, from all kinds of writers.)

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Early Stories: 1977-1988 by Rick Geary

It's a cliche that creators resent their fans who like best the "early funny ones," but I have to be that guy for just a second. Rick Geary has had a wonderful career: he has a quirky but devastatingly precise line and has made several dozen excellent graphic novels about historical murders over the last couple of decades. (Plus a number of other things.)

But he started out even quirkier, and I might like that ultra-quirky Geary even better than the meticulous, methodical, organized chronicler of mayhem. For about the first decade of Geary's career -- say, the period covered by Rick Geary Early Stories: 1977-1988 -- a Geary comics page was as likely to be a collection of lovingly-detailed kitchen appliances as anything else. Or a carefully-drawn collection of vignettes from oddly-named motels from around the country. Or a series of unexplained and possibly supernatural events, narrated dryly and matter-of-factly, as if it was just another day.

Geary nailed a deadpan affect from the beginning, and that, plus his almost-immediately strong drawing abilities made these slices of bizarre life unique in the cartoon world of the late '70s. You might not have entirely understood an early Geary story, but it was compelling and memorable and unlike anyone else.

Those stories were collected other places over the years, most notably the Geary collections Housebound and At Home with Rick Geary. Both of those are long out of print, so it's wonderful to see Early Stories gather eighty pages of prime high Geary weirdness into one place. You're not going to find this book easily, though -- it may turn up in a comic shop or independent bookstore or two, but the only dependable way to find it is to buy it directly from the author.

And I do recommend that you do that, if you have any inclination towards odd, off-the-wall stories told matter-of-factly in comics form. Early Geary practically invented that style, and remains its undisputed master.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Paul Up North by Michel Rabagliati

Of course Paul Riforati is not Michel Rabagliati -- he has a different name, see?

But Rabagliati has now given us about 1200 pages of comics -- not all of which have made it into the English language, true -- about Riforati and his life. They may all be completely fictional: Paul may just be someone born at about the same time as Rabagliati, living in the same places, having the same jobs, with all of the emotional and story content entirely unconnected to Rabagliati's life.

Sure. That's plausible, isn't it?

We don't know Rabagliati personally. We almost never know a creator personally. So he could have made it all up.

But I don't think so. What a creator does is not so much "create," which implies making something out of whole cloth, but transforming. And the Paul stories are one of the finest examples of life transformed into art that the modern world has to offer.

Paul Up North is the sixth book about Paul to be translated into English, according to Rabagliati's bibliography. (If I'm tracking it correctly, there's two full books and some shorter stuff -- Paul dans le metro and Paul au parc -- that haven't made it to my language.) We've previously seen Paul Has a Summer Job, when he was 17, Paul Moves Out, covering a year or two on each side of 20, Paul Goes Fishing, which combines a frame story of Paul at 30 with an embedded story of him at 15, The Song of Roland, less focused on Paul himself but finding him in his thirties, and Paul Joins the Scouts, when he was 9 and 10.

Up North falls right in the middle of the previous books, covering roughly a year between the runaway in Goes Fishing and the highschool dropout in Summer Job. This book doesn't bounce around in time like some of the others do: it's told in order, seeing Paul start to grow up and separate from his family. He gets a new best friend, a first girlfriend, a mode of transportation all his own, and a place away from his parents where he can be his new self. He also spends a lot of time with his uninhibited uncle, who gives him other chances to be someone different than the sullen teen his parents are becoming all-too-familiar with.

It's a stage of life that everyone has to go through. Some do it earlier, some later. Some fly on their own, some are shoved out with force and have to make it however they can. Paul was lucky: he had a loving family and a stable society, and lived in a time when he could hitchhike a few hundred miles north without too much trouble. So, though there's sadness here -- adolescence is always fraught, and remaking yourself doesn't always take -- it's, in the end, a positive story of a boy making the steps that will help turn him into a man.

As always, Rabagliati tells the story with quiet confidence and control. His people still have that appealing UPA-ish look, simplified just enough to be universal, and his backgrounds are somewhat more realistic but still take that slight turn into cartoony abstraction. He's a great chronicler of his own life -- or, I should say, of this life that we assume is parallel to his own.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/2

If you're an American, today is a holiday that you try not to think too much about, because we're deeply schizophrenic about it. (It should be a holiday to celebrate organized labor, but the US is too far to the right to be comfortable with anything as leftist-sounding as that.) If you're not an American, you probably had a Labour Day a few months ago, and might even be making an "Americans, late and confused as usual" joke in your heads.

You may have a point.

Anyway, what's important is that today is a Monday, and every Monday morning I put up a post to list the books that came in my mail last week. Once upon a time, when I was responsive to publicists and just recently out of fiction publishing myself and blogging was actually a viable way to drive publicity, those books came in a steady stream. Nowadays, when none of those above things are true, I'm surprised I get any.

And last week, being the end of summer -- a quiet time in any industry, and doubly so in publishing --was a bad bet for free books to begin with.

So this week I got nuttin' for youse (he said in his best Joisy accent). Try back next time. Or go back to yesterday, when I probably* posted a list of books I bought this week. And think about organized labor today, if you are American.

*Probably, because it's what I'm intending to do next. So it's in the past to you now, but the future to me as I write this, and there's a chance it won't happen....

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Incoming Books: August 31

I was on vacation this past week, and that generally means I get some book-shopping in. Traditionally, my family has a trip to Hershey Park this last week of August -- it's usually still hot, and Pennsylvania schools are back in session, which makes it perfect -- and I've tacked on a trip to the Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg a few of those years, since what is travel but an excuse to hit some bookstores?

Unfortunately, my older son's college schedule has limited our travel options for the past two years, meaning I've had to miss Midtown Scholar. And this year was rainy and cold, meaning we did the open rides (most of them, actually!) really quickly but weren't able to spend any time in the water section that takes up a third of the park. So sometimes the luck does not work out.

It also meant I needed to go to a different bookstore if I wanted to get a shopping trip in this week. I did, and so I did: Montclair Book Center, the indy where I've spent the most time over the years. And these were the books I found on this past Thursday:

Doctor Sleep by Madison Smartt Bell -- I had this 1991 novel on my list of "books to look for" for ages, though I may have removed it at some point. I'm pretty sure I've never read anything by Bell. But this is a literary thriller with possible genre elements, so what the heck.

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin -- a semi-famous travel book. I think I acquire more travel books than I actually read, but that's true for pretty much any genre I could mention. Chatwin is someone else I've never read.

Around the World in 80 Cliches by Laura Lee -- it was a small, gift-y book on the "words and language" shelf, and looks like a fine addition to my small stack of books for the smallest room in the house. (For some reason, the covers online are the usual proportions, but the book itself I have is shorter and squatter.)

Nutshell by Ian McEwan -- I've fallen behind on his books a bit, but McEwan is intermittently a great writer and always a good one. This is his retelling of Hamlet among the London borgeoisie, narrated by a fetus -- it sounds just weird enough for me.

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakai -- his new short-story collection. From the title, my assumption is that these stories will tend towards the literary rather than the fantastical, but you know what they say about assumptions....

The Rising by Ian Tregillis -- the second book in Tregillis's "Alchemy Wars" series, after The Mechanical. Tregillis is a real talent, and I think I'm already another book behind on this series.

Love in the Time of Fridges by Tim Scott -- this looked weird and interesting; it was from that era when Bantam Spectra was publishing basically literary SF/Fantasy into the genre to see if people would bite. (I think the answer ended up to be: no, not enough to make it viable. But that's the fate of most good books anyway.)

Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux -- I'm slowly finishing off Theroux's travel books, and this is one of the ones I haven't read yet. (Well, I think I haven't read it -- I know I didn't have a copy.)

Notes, Vol. 1: Born to Be a Larve by Boulet -- Boulet is a Parisian cartoonist, and I don't think much of his work is available in English. But he does have an online diary comic which has (recently?) started to be translated, and which I've been enjoying a lot lately. This is the first English-language collection of that comic, which strips from 2004-05.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons -- You might have heard of this one. I haven't read it in a number of years, and I haven't replaced my copy since my flood in '11. So now I have it in case the mood strikes.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Read in August

Here we go again! These are the books I read last month, and they should very soon all have links to posts about those books, if you're interested in what they are and/or what I thought about them. (I should warn you that I can get pretty opinionated, and that you shouldn't necessarily assume I'm entirely correct.)

Matt Fraction, David Aja, and others, Hawkeye, Vol. 4: Rio Bravo (8/2)

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (8/4)

Michel Rabagliati, Paul Up North (8/8)

Rick Geary, Early Stories: 1977-1988 (8/9)

Don DeLillo, White Noise (8/11) 

Kyle Baker, Cartoonist, Volume 2 (8/15)

Rick Geary, Black Dahlia (8/16)

Pamela Wharton Blanpied, Dragons: The Modern Infestation (8/17)

Joey Green, Contrary to Popular Belief (8/21)

Neil Gaiman and Collen Doran, Troll Bridge (8/22)

Martha Wells, All Systems Red (8/22)

Shannon Wheeler, I Told You So (8/23)

And that's what I read in the not-nearly-as-hot-as-I-feel-like-it-used-to-be-in-years-gone-by August. Since I wrote most of those posts at the very end of the month (and even more, so, during the long Labor Day weekend immediately following), they will flow out over the course of most of September. Eventually, the above list will be filled with links. For now, though, you'll have to imagine what I've said about those books.

Next month I'll be back with more books. I expect it won't be as many as I wish I read, but that's life.