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.

Read in October

These are the books I read this month: I can already tell (typing this intro on October 7) that it's going to be a slim month. Oh, well.

Kurt Busiek, Len Wein and Kelley Jones, Conan: Book of Thoth (10/3)

Rick Geary, The Story of the Lincoln County War (10/4)

Kyle Baker, The Bakers: Babies and Kittens (10/10)

Peter Bagge and others, Sweatshop (10/12)

Michel Rabagliati, Paul Moves Out (10/24)

Paul Moves Out was the second of Michel Rabagliati's semi-autobiographical graphic novels about "Paul Riforati," who had a life remarkably parallel to his creator's.

I wrote about it when I read it the first time, back in 2008. I was pretty straightforward then, and I don't see any strong reason to add fripperies or gewgaws to that original post, so you can just follow the link if you want to know more.

I guess I can say this, which is new: I owned a copy of this book, lost it in a flood, bought a new one, re-read it, and enjoyed it even more. That could be because it was a second read, when hidden things often become more clear, or just because I'm older now -- either way, I can recommend this book again.

Walt Simonson and Daniel Brereton, Legends of the World's Finest (10/25)

Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster (10/28)

Tom Hart, The Collected Hutch Owen, Volume 1 (10/31)

Hey! I forgot to push the "publish" button on time. But here you go now.