Friday, August 30, 2019

Quote of the Week: So It Goes

Billy covered his head with his blanket again. He always covered his head when his mother came to see him in the mental ward -- always got much sicker until she went away. It wasn't that she was ugly, or had bad breath or a bad personality. She was a perfectly nice, standard-issue, brown-haired, white woman with a high-school education.

She upset Billy simply by being his mother. She made him feel embarrassed and ungrateful and weak because she had gone to so much trouble to give him life, and to keep that life going, and Billy didn't really like life at all.
 - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five, p.412 in the Library of America Novels & Stories 1963-1973 omnibus

Thursday, August 29, 2019

I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB, Vol. 1 by Tardi

I probably should say this first: this book is titled I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB, Vol. 1. And it's credited to "Tardi."

One might easily assume "Tardi" means "Rene Tardi," the chap who was a POW. But one would be wrong.

Rene died in 1986, and never drew comics. (There are some of his sketches in the frontmatter here, so I don't want to say he didn't draw anything. He could draw better than me, for one thing.)

This "Tardi" is his son Jacques, who originally used both of those names for his bandes dessinees until the weight of all of those other French cartoonists who only use one name got to be too much for him, and he succumbed to the lure of the single moniker.

Even in a case, like this one, where that creates confusion. Style is more important than anything else, eh mes amis?

Rene POW is a 2012 comic -- translated into English for a 2018 publication in the US -- based on a series of notebooks that Jacques made during conversations with his father in the early '80s. One may presume that he had the idea for this book even then; Jacques Tardi had been a working cartoonist for over a decade at that point. But it took a few more decades for him to get around to it, during years when he told stories about The Great War and Paris detectives and Adele Blanc-Sec and American crime and steampunky super-science and many more.

For a book that claims to be a memoir of WWII, Rene POW has some very odd elements. It starts off with an introduction by Dominique Grange, which is mostly about her father and only secondarily about Rene Tardi. Somewhat later in the book, the reader realizes that Grange is Jacques Tardi's wife, but the book does not explain this explicitly anywhere. In honor of that connection, Rene meets Grange's father in that POW camp later in the book -- they didn't actually meet then in real life, or at least didn't remember it.

And then the book itself is framed as Rene telling the story to Jacques. Rene looks like he did at the time of the war, a strong, angry young man in his uniform, and he narrates the book -- sometimes as a voice coming out of nowhere, sometimes as his young self in the scene. And then Jacques appears as a schoolboy, maybe ten or thirteen, who wanders through the scenes without being part of them, questioning his father in words that mostly seem to be post-Rene's death but sometimes do turn into a conversation between the two men.

So this is neither exactly what Rene wrote nor a true collaboration between the two. It is instead based on notes made while Rene was alive, but full of questions and second thoughts that Jacques only had after his father was dead. But that's the only way to collaborate with the dead: to take everything they did and said, and present it as honestly as possible, while also pointing out the things they didn't do or say.

POW life in WWII was horrible, and the French had it nearly the worst. (The Russians probably had it the absolute worst, and the Americans probably the "best.") Rene Tardi was in Stalag IIB for basically the entire war; he was captured just as France fell. So he has a long time of horrible events to cover here, and they are horrible and unpleasant and full of hideous details.

This is not quite as searing as Tardi's books about World War One; this book is about his own father, who survived the war. But it's still a war story, and it's a reminder of how much war destroys -- not just the people who are killed and the cities that are flattened, but also what's broken in even the people who survive.

[1] Completely unconnected footnote: I realized, when putting together this post, that I don't have a snarky tag for France. (England has There Will Always Be An England, for example, but I tend to use the vaguer Foreigners Sure Are Foreign for the whole rest of the world, which may not be the best plan.) My first thought, since my tags tend to be super-sarcastic and borderline obnoxious, was Wogs Begin at Calais, but that's vastly too offensive.

So, instead, I'm creating the slightly less offensive new tag 246 Kinds of Cheese, in honor of De Gaulle. I trust you will treat this with exactly as much seriousness as it deserves.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Skill of Our Hands by Steven Brust and Skyler White

The most weak-ass world-ruling conspiracy returns in 2017's The Skill of Our Hands, a sequel to 2014's chamber succession drama The Incrementalists. (See that link for my review.) And, this time out, they're slightly more concerned with changing the world than they were in the first book, but they're still not all that good at it.

Let me repeat: after ten thousand years, they're still shit at manipulating history.

In fact, this book starts with the murder of one of them, Phil, the oldest and wisest Incrementalist with the longest unbroken history behind him, giving him centuries of direct experience. He's trying to nudge US border-enforcement policy in a slightly less draconian direction, and all he gets for it is three bullets in the spine.

(If we assume this series is set in the real world, which I admit is not at all fair to authors Steven Brust and Skyler White, we can also extrapolate that whatever the Incrementalists were doing actually made things worse since the time this book chronicles. They do claim to do that, sometimes -- to nudge things in the opposite direction that they want, "countermeddling" in order that some backlash, someday, will do the way they want. Hey! Their minds are immortal; what do they care?)

The Incrementalists each have an unbroken memory stretching back ten thousand years -- though the exact personality accessing that memory tends to only last a few hundred years before being supplanted by a new host's original mind. They share an extradimensional space called the Garden, where they can all access each other's memories -- well, not all of each other's memories, or not consistently, though the rules of how and why particular memories are "seeded" there and what another Incrementalist can "graze" for are still not clear to me. There are two hundred of them, scattered throughout the world. They are not rich; they control no major businesses or nations; they are barely organized at the best of times even though they can walk through each other's subconscious whenever they want to. They all seem to work ordinary jobs as normal people, with Incrementalism as their shared secret hobby, like numismatics or crewel-work. They seem to only rarely work with each other on their meddling projects.

Frankly, if the Garden was a YouTube channel, this series would make more sense: that's about the level of their activities.

The Skill of Our Hands includes a secondary historical plot, following Phil (then called Carter) just before the US Civil War. This mostly serves to show that the Incrementalists never had much influence on anything, and spent their time trying to use their oh-so-carefully-researched "switches" (sense memories that their targets associate with various emotions) in mostly fruitless conversations with people who don't want to change their opinions .

The Incrementalists, bluntly, don't ever run anything, take over anything, gather power or money or fame to themselves. Instead, their aim is to quietly talk, one-to-one, with people who might actually do things, and use tricky smells and humming snatches of songs to make those people do what the Incrementalists want.

As I've now said a couple of times, not even Brust and White claim that this has much effect.

More so: Brust and White don't claim, anywhere that I noticed, any major world movements or moments for their Incrementalists. They are the BASF of conspiracies -- they didn't cause WWII, but they say they made it ever-so-slightly less horrific than it otherwise would have been. And they can prove this by...well, no, actually they can't. They just know that they meddle in things, and, apparently, every once in a while things actually happen the way they're hoping, though that seems to be exceptionally rare from the evidence of these two novels.

In this book, they're once again trying to find a new "second" for a dead Incrementalist, another one killed by violence in just a couple of years in the Western US. There are some unusual aspects to the transition this time, but most of the plot is the same as the first book: the Incrementalists are spiky people who reflexively argue and disagree with each other. So what we have here is mostly three hundred pages, again, of people in rooms talking about how they should interfere with history -- which, again, hardly ever does anything at all -- and what body they should shove Phil's "stub" into -- which, frankly, doesn't seem to matter much at all.

I like reading Brust's prose. His work here with White is just as readable as anything else in his career. And these people are real, entirely well-rounded. The fact that I don't care about their problems is a different issue. The fact that they've spent hundreds of lifetimes doing something that seems entirely useless at its core, though, is something Brust and White should have thought more seriously about before they published two novels about these people.

If they set out to write a snarky object lesson about why pacifist anarchists will never have political power anywhere, good for them. Otherwise, I'm not really sure what the point of this series is.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Rock Steady by Ellen Forney

I grabbed this book because of a misapprehension. I knew that it was the follow-up to Forney's Marbles, a comics memoir of her struggle with bipolar disorder and how she came to find balance.

So, thought I, Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life will be either the story of how her life has changed since then -- either for good or bad, or probably both like all of us -- or maybe a more holistic look at her life from childhood on and how her disorder affected all of it.

I thought wrong.

Rock Steady is a resource book for bipolar people. It's laid out like comics, more or less -- less, frankly, with lots of hand-lettered paragraphs floating next to a borderless drawn image on most of the pages. It has eight chapters that focus on different things that you as a bipolar person need to have in your life to keep you stable and on an even keel, from sleep to therapy to medicine to people that support you.

(Forney has a silly acronym, and an odd little creature to embody it, for all of these things: SMEDMERTS, which stands for Sleep Meds Eat Doctor Mindfulness Exercise Routine Tools Support system.)

It includes several pages of resources at the end, and a whole lot of references in the middle: it's a book about a serious chronic medical condition, by a layman yes, but still something to be taken seriously and that has been studied by many for a long time.

My guess is that this is a great book if you are bipolar, and probably also if someone close to you is bipolar. Forney has lived this, and she has a smart, no-bullshit tone to her work and a cartoonist's eye for simplicity and clean lines.

If you are not bipolar, and are just someone who reads books all the way through because you started them looking for another Ellen Forney memoir, well, you will probably think it's a very useful thing for people who are not you. (Naming no names here.)

Monday, August 26, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/24/19

This time out, it's particularly small beer not only do I only have one book to write about, but it's one I've already mentioned once before.

The book is The Envious Siblings and Other Morbid Nursery Rhymes, by Landis Blair, a collection of illustrated stories told in verse in the Edward Gorey vein. It will be published by Norton on Octber 8th. And I saw the proof back in April, giving it all of a Reviewing the Mail post then.

If I had read the book since then, I'd have something new to say about it. But I haven't, yet -- the proof is still up on the shelf, waiting for me.

So: go back to that old post if a new Gorey sounds interesting to you and you missed my post the first time around. Otherwise, I do expect to get to this book soon: it's short, aims to be funny, and I can tell at a glance that Landis draws well. (It's harder to tell about writing, especially verse. For that I'll have to read the thing.)

Friday, August 23, 2019

Quote of the Week: Believe What They Tell You

They told you it was a war for the soul of America, but you didn't believe them. They kept saying you were the Enemy, but you wouldn't accept that, because you didn't feel like an enemy. Now you know they meant every word, and more.
 -- the opening lines of Steve Erickson's 1997 book American Nomad

Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Not-So-Nude Ride of Lady Godiva & Other Morsels of Misinformation from the History Books by David Haviland

Now, that is a title. I was worried that I couldn't fit it into the little box provided in Blogger: that's how long it is. And it will probably look gigantic at the top of this post.

This is yet another "odd fact" book: I read them pretty regularly, in the obvious household location for books that you can pick up and read for a few minutes and put down again for a day or two.

The Not-So-Nude Ride of Lady Godiva & Other Morsels of Misinformation from the History Books purports to be a "you think X is true? well, let me tell you about Y!" book, but it's not actually written that way. Instead, each mini-essay just tells the story of that historical thing -- Lady Godiva's ride or Joan of Arc's crimes, the Indian Mutiny and the Children's Crusade, the Great Leap Forward and Jack Ketch -- under a headline written as a question. I have no idea why: it's not quite a bait-and-switch, since the book is about quirky historical information that the average reader will not know, but the positioning is pretty weird.

One thing I can say: this is in a loose series, which may have influenced that positioning. First was Why You Shouldn't Eat Your Boogers & Other Useless or Gross Information About Your Body, by Francesca Gould, and it was followed by Gould's Why Fish Fart (long descriptive subtitles silently suppressed from this point) and Why Dogs Eat Poop and Why You Should Store Your Farts in a Jar, both by Gould and Haviland together.

So it looks like Gould wrote one book, it was popular, she continued, she got tired of doing it all herself and then got tired of doing it at all. (This is assuming I have the sequence right: Lady Godiva is from 2012, so I might be mixing things up temporally.) Once Haviland took it all over, the focus shifted from "gross and useless" (possibly because that vein was exhausted) to "quirky and unusual."

Frankly, I don't care all that deeply, but I used to do this for a living -- reading books, positioning them, arguing about titles, trying to hook reader interest -- so the inside-baseball questions are often more interesting to me than writing about the book itself.

I mean, the book is fine: it's got a lot of stories, all of which are true as far as I know, about interesting historical events that mostly didn't go the way Joe Average thinks they did or would think they did if Joe thought about it much. It's divided into ten vague thematic chapters, each one arranged chronologically, and it's a fun, zippy read.

It was eminently suited for the use I put it to: that's what I'm saying. It does the job, and might even have shoved a few sticky facts into my brain. So good for it!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Rubicon Beach by Steve Erickson

I've written about Steve Erickson before -- hit this link for more details.

But the short form is this: he's been writing imaginative, powerful novels since the mid-80s, books that orbit fantastika elliptically, books that are about things rather than telling stories, books that are unabashedly literary and thoughtful, books that are sometimes (like Leap Year) called nonfiction even when they centrally figure historical figures living in the modern world. His books are weird, quirky, unique -- whatever adjective you want that means "radically different" or "not for a lot of people" or "way out there."

And he's not Steven Erikson: that guy's real name is Steve Rune Lundin, and he started writing more than a decade after Erickson.

Rubicon Beach was his second novel, originally published in 1986 and reprinted by Vintage Contemporaries a year later. I found it, for the first time, then or in 1988, along with Erickson's first novel, Days Between Stations.

I've been reading him ever since. I think his books are some of the most important American literature of our time.

But I still struggle to write about them in any coherent way. His books -- Rubicon Beach strongly follows this pattern -- fall into long sections that each follow seemingly separate characters, in different time periods, doing different things. The obsessions are similar, and the visions of ruin and sadness are common. His main characters are driven by things they don't understand: sometimes internal demons, sometimes events in the world, often both. There are events, but, like our own lives, those events don't tend to be nearly organized into a temporal sequence to generate excitement and adventure.

In Rubicon Beach, we open with the first-person story of Cale, just released from prison in a dystopian, falling-apart America some indeterminate time in the near future. We don't know what happened to this America. There's talk of American One and America Two, of annexes and territories, but no explanations. Cale is dropped of in a flooded Los Angeles, full of canals and ruined buildings and discrete islands. We don't know how that happened, either. He was a political prisoner, arrested for belonging to an organization whose name we never learn and whose goals aren't clear. Maybe to overthrow the government? (But, then, the government of America One or of America Two?) And he was released for an indiscreet moment: he accidentally told a joke in prison that got someone else executed.

And he keeps seeing a young barefoot Latina woman on the edge of the water, here and there in LA at night, with a man kneeling in front of her as she cuts his head off.

He's pretty sure the man is him. Every time.

The second section begins years earlier, and follows a young woman named Catherine, growing up somewhere unspecified in South America. (Yes, she is. Well, maybe she is. Erickson's like that.)

She's alone in life, friendless except for her father, but has a near-supernatural beauty, a face that sometimes transfixes everyone who sees it and sometimes disappears entirely, seeming to be other things so that Catherine herself can't be seen. She's torn from that world. kidnapped, set on a rambling path northward. She makes it to LA, in what seems to be the late '80s, in a world just like the one this novel was published into. She thinks, or is told, that crossing a specific street in LA marks her real entry to America.

That may even be true.

Her mere presence -- she doesn't even speak English; like so many women in Erickson, things happen to and around and because of her but not due to her agency -- wrecks the life of a screenwriter and his family. It destroys more than that, actually. None of that is her fault, or her action.

Her understanding of the world does not match our own. It's difficult to say which of us is correct, in the world of Rubicon Beach.

The third section of the novel dives further back in time. Its central character is Jack Mick Lake, born about 1914 and possessed of an amazing mathematical mind. He comes to believe that he's discovered a new number -- between nine and ten -- and that this number, which could have only been discovered in America, implies a whole new landscape of life. He has a complicated, tragic family. He falls in love with a young radical woman and loses her horribly while in college.

Many quiet, spent years later, he moves to Penzance in England in 1951, for no obvious reason. There he meets an old man who may be Cale and a woman who may be Catherine. And, in the end, he has to return to America, to take another long journey to that final beach.

What these three sections have to do with each other is never cleanly evident. It's nothing simple. In one sense, Rubicon Beach is a novel all about the assassination of Robert Kennedy, even though his name appears nowhere in the book. (Erickson, again, is that kind of writer: his most direct line is elliptical.)

Reading a Steve Erickson book is a distinctive experience. (This isn't even the weirdest one.) Rubicon Beach is actually relatively straightforward for Erickson, with each section telling its story cleanly, always moving forward in time.

If you read books to think deeply, to immerse yourself in new ideas and unexpected constellations of words, to wonder at amazing phrases and be surprised by endless inventiveness, you should try Erickson.

This book isn't a bad place to start, in 2019 -- it shows us a world flooded in the near future, an America broken in two for reasons it won't tell us, secret police and radical cells, women treated as objects, and the yearning for something better and truer. Sound familiar?

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

No Fair! No Fair! and Other Jolly Poems of Childhood by Calvin Trillin and Roz Chast

I should be honest, up front: this is a book for kids. In fact, it combines some of the worst genres of the kids-book world: the first book for children by someone famous for something else, a collection of humorous verse, a book for kids by someone whose grandchildren seem to have grown up quite a bit.

(There can be good things in the worst genres, of course. And I mean "worst" partly aesthetically and partly commercially: these are genres that exist to move product and usually have all of the flaws that aim delivers.)

I read it because I'm a long-time Calvin Trillin fan, even as I think his verse is doggy at best and occasionally cringe-inducing. Sometimes you just have to look because you think the car has crashed.

So, then: No Fair! No Fair! and Other Jolly Poems of Childhood. Written by Trillin with pictures by the great cartoonist Roz Chast. There are about fifteen selections of verse here -- I'm not going to call them "poetry" in anything but the tags -- though three of those are themselves collections of four shorter related pieces.

It's all intended to be funny, and it's all mildly amusing. And it's about the things you'd expect: protecting your side of the back seat, not wanting a new sibling, stuffed animals, eating habits, shoe-tying, how the older sibling is in charge [1], the "Grandpa rule," school troubles, bedtime troubles, demands for pets.

There's no reason to read this unless you're reading it out loud to very small persons. And, even there, I have to think making up your own jokes, songs and rituals based on your own family will be better and funnier...and will probably happen anyway, in any family that might be inclined to read a book like this. But if you are a grandparent, particularly one who likes Trillin, you are the core audience for this book, and you may find that you have bought it without thinking deeply on the matter.

[1] Wasn't true in my childhood -- my younger brother was the most stubborn person alive at the age of seven, and would do the opposite of anything I told him to, or alternatively would do whatever would most annoy me in that moment -- or with my own sons.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/17/19

I've been reading a little more recently, and, as surely as night follows day, if I read two books a week for two weeks in a row, some part of my brain turns on the BUY BOOKS switch, and I end up with about a dozen more in the house suddenly.

It does mean that I'll never run out of books, which is comforting. But I'm not sure it's a reasonable response.

I bought these four books used from ABEbooks about a week ago, and they came in during this week. It was one of those usual things -- I was thinking about one book, it was out of print and my old copy was destroyed in the 2011 flood, so in getting a new copy I somehow bought three other things.

Algis Budrys SF Gateway Omnibus collects the three novels The Iron Throne (which I'd never heard of before), Michaelmas (which has been on my "read it someday" list for probably twenty-five years without my ever owning a copy), and Hard Landing (which I thought I didn't have, but, after buying this, I saw that I do have the SFBC hardcover I did on the shelf). I like the idea of the Gateway omnibuses, and, if this were twenty years ago, would probably be trying to collect as many of them as I could.

Leap Year by Steve Erickson -- this was the book that triggered the whole thing. I've been reading Erickson a lot recently: rereading his first two novels Days Between Stations and Rubicon Beach (post goes live on Wednesday) and catching up with his most recent novel Shadowbahn a couple of years late. You know how for a while it felt like the world was a P.K. Dick novel? Well, the world has been feeling like a Steve Erickson book to me for a couple of years now, so I wanted to get back to this, his first "non-fiction" book. Erickson traveled the country during the 1988 election, accompanied -- as he claims -- by the ghost of Sally Hemings.

American Nomad by Steve Erickson -- his other "non-fiction" book, which I don't remember as clearly. Erickson did somewhat the same thing during the 1996 election.

Trillin on Texas by Calvin Trillin -- I've wondered about this book since I learned it existed. I believe it's a small-press thing, from (obviously) a press in Texas, and probably one more academic than popular. Trillin grew up in Missouri and has spent most of his adult life working in New York City, so I don't get the Texas connection. But this book has a bunch of writing by him about stuff and people in Texas, and Texas always has to make everything about it, so I guess that's the point.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

A Note About Something No One Is Likely To Notice

So my new PC is right now busy chugging away, trying to repair the internal HD that I know is dying slowly and which I've backed up already three ways from Sunday. [1] (Two external HDs that I already had, plus a spiffy new internal 6TB that I just installed.) It did this for sixteen hours Friday night into Saturday, and it's been running for about twelve hours this time.

I don't want to force it to stop, since that doesn't help and could damage things. But it does mean that I'm not on my primary machine over the weekend, when I want to be typing blog posts and playing video games and (most at the moment) figuring out how to actually get the list of mods I want actually recognized and live in Oblivion.

So I'm typing this on the really unpleasant keyboard of my Macbook Pro -- seriously, it's like punching a piece of aluminum over and over again with your fingertips -- and I'm not expecting to be typing any other blog posts later today because of how annoying that is.

Which is sad, because I have five books I've read that I want to write about, and the last couple of weekends I've managed to write two or three posts each day. (See: now I'm talking about the process, which means it will get smashed immediately.)

Anyway, you won't notice this because I do have posts scheduled for this week, and I expect next weekend will be back to normal. (At worst, because I will shut down the damn thing, open up the case, and just disconnect the stupid drive that I'm not actually using.)

[1] It has been reporting SMART events for nearly two months now. It's definitely on its way out.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Quote of the Week: Totally True Facts

Florida also got a big economic boost when the federal government decided to locate the space program in Cape Canaveral, which was an ideal location for launching rockets because over the centuries hurricanes had blown away most of the gravity.
 - Dave Barry, Best. State. Ever., p. 41

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Your Black Friend and Other Strangers by Ben Passmore

Ben Passmore is angry: that would be the reductive story.

Of course, we're all angry some of the time, and that's true for Passmore. And some of us have more things to be angry about than others. Passmore is a black man in present-day (I'm pretty sure) New Orleans, which is a couple of solid things to be angry about. [1]

Your Black Friend and Other Strangers collects twenty mostly short comics by Passmore, many of which express anger. Some have sadness, or resignation, or other emotions. The longer pieces are more varied -- it's the single-pagers that tend to be bluntly emotional, direct reactions to some horrible thing in Passmore's life or the wider world.

You've probably heard of the title story. Maybe read it. Maybe saw the video. It's aimed at people like me. Maybe you, too, if you're a person like me. (White, settled, comfortable, older, and so on.) It's more reasonable and nuanced than most of the short pieces here: Passmore is more usually an agitprop bomb-thrower, radical reflexively but thoughtfully, the kind of person always pushing for more and better in a world getting lesser and worse.

(And unabashedly pushing for more and better for himself and people like him, which may not mean the same for everyone everywhere. The world is full of choices and options: the ones America has taken so far have not been great for Passmore.)

I appreciate that even as I found a number of these stories exhausting or counterproductively contentious. (Or, sometimes, advocating for things I think would be bad ideas -- but Passmore probably disagrees with me, on the advocacy or the bad ideas or both.) Passmore may not be angry all the time, but from the evidence here, he sure isn't happy.

There are some longer, elliptical, fictional stories -- particularly the long pieces "A Pantomime Horse I" and "Goodbye" -- but those are still Passmore stories. The same concerns are there: race, class, power, revolution. He's serious about all of them, right up to the border with strident and over the line more than once.

Passmore has a bright palette a lot of the time -- a few of the longer stories mix blocks of hand-lettered text with panels on open white pages, but most of his work is tighter and more claustrophobic: lots of panels, lots of colors, lots of words, lots of ideas.

Your Black Friend and Other Strangers is a dense book that lands with an impact. It says things a lot of us don't want to hear. Maybe things we don't believe, or don't agree with. But we need to hear those things, and Passmore is really good at saying them.

[1] The black thing, obviously. And Louisiana in particular has some amazingly baroque corruption -- I say this as a resident of New Jersey, which has its own issues.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar

It's not common for a novel to feel like a novella. An overgrown novella, yes -- something that has a novella's worth of story and energy to it, with another forty or fifty thousand words loosely arranged around it like packing material in a box. Those have been common in the speculative area over the last couple of generations.

But a book with the fizz and get-to-it staccato rhythm of a good novella with no time to waste that maintains that for a novel's length? And keeps that novella-style focus on a few characters and a single conflict? That's a lot rarer. Before today, I might have said that I didn't think it was possible.

But Lavie Tidhar's 2013 superhero novel The Violent Century is exactly like that: lots of quick sentence fragments in clusters to describe places and people and feelings in the fewest possible precise words. A narrative that covers a century in smash-cuts to just the highlights. A cast that the reader realizes is mostly three guys in one room, at the end of the story, with maybe half-a-dozen other people important along the way. It's a novella: only it's 316 pages long.

Century is of the Big Bang theory of superheroes: there was An Event in 1932 that created all of them, all at once, across the world. We know a little about the event, as the book goes on, and we know many of those affected. We know that they don't age at all, from that moment -- though some seem to have been kids at the time, and they clearly grew up -- though they can die. And their powers are all singletons: we don't see any flying bricks, or mentalists with heat vision. Each Ubermensch can do A Thing, which the book hints is related to who they were and what they were doing at the time of the event.

Why be coy? The event was triggered by a machine, built by a Dr. Vomacht in Germany. (Note that name, Cordwainer Smith fans.) For whatever reason, he's never been able to recreate it. The machine made some kind of a wave, that blanketed the world. Some people were affected. We don't know how many: one in a million, maybe? One in ten million? Enough that there are a bunch of Ubermenchen, all over the world, of every nation and people.

(As one character notes, that makes them essentially useless: since every nation has Ubermenschen, they will never tip the balance of any war. One might quibble that "not winning WWII for you" is not the same as "useless," but it is for that character, and maybe in this world in general.)

We begin in "the present day," in London. Tidhar is Israeli-born and a Londoner as an adult; the books' focus will be on the Brits and the world seen through their eyes.

One Ubermench, Oblivion, finds another, Fogg, in a hole-in-the-wall bar, and drags him back to see their once-and-again boss, the Old Man. They haven't seen each other in forty years; we'll learn why. The rest of the book is a series of flashbacks: once in a while Tidhar implies they're retelling these stories to each other, or reliving them, to sort through the history as the Old Man investigates what happened, and, more specifically, what Fogg did.

As that "useless" comment implies, they were active in many times and places, without changing any of the history we know. Century is mostly set during WWII, with the back half touching down at moments ever more years apart to show the same patterns continuing afterwards on a less exalted level.

This is a story of men and war. There are only a couple of female characters at all, and they have no agency and don't do much. One is central to the book, but central is not the same as responsible. Frankly, at the end, I wanted her story, not that of the men running around in the mud trying to kill each other with various superpowers for a hundred years. But Tidhar is not telling her story: she is the perfect moment of happiness for one of his male characters, not really a person in her own right.

Violent Century will probably annoy a lot of the readers who like superhero novels. It has that tight, stark novella structure. It doesn't glory in the fighting. It has the tone and manner of a British spy novel, like some two-universes-over version of Le Carre. The superpowers are mostly dull and limited -- a power-nullifier, a snowstorm-maker, a tough guy. (There is a minor-league speedster and a record-scratch time-skipper, but neither one is important to the story or does much.) It frankly doesn't have the things that most readers are looking for in superhero stories: clean moral lines, big fights, angst, cool costumes.

What it has is interesting and well-constructed, and it has a feverish energy in its sentences. I thought, in the end, that it didn't add up to as much as I was hoping, but perhaps my hopes were unreasonably high.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Hephaistos by George O'Connor

George O'Connor's projected twelve-book series about the Greek gods, aka "The Olympians," reaches its penultimate book [1] with this year's Hephaistos: God of Fire.

I've written about all ten of the prior books, recommended them all, and gushed maybe a bit as well: see this link for more details.

So I could easily say something like "hey, remember what I said about the earlier books? well, it's still true here."

And it is all still true: Hephaistos is smart, deeply-researched, well-drawn, and gripping. It tells mythological stories for a middle-grade audience without writing down to them and in a manner that can be enjoyed by people much older than that. (Me, for example.) It even has great backmatter, full of panel-specific notes and a detailed list of references and History of the Marvel Universe-style fact pages for the major characters. (Collect them all!)

This one combines the title character's life, mostly narrated by himself, with the story of Prometheus -- who of course will not get his own book in this series, since he's a Titan rather than an Olympian. O'Connor makes it all one story, one coherent narrative, as he's done with all of these books: one of his great talents is in finding a thematic through-line for all of these figures, turning a collection of myths and legends told over hundreds of years for different purposes by different people into something coherent and simple and true.

If you have middle-schoolers, or smart upper grade-schoolers, make these books available to them. (I mean, don't tell your kids to read these books unless you have particularly odd, nerdy kids. You might do better by forbidding these books, frankly.) If you like mythological retellings, and are of any age, you should check them out yourself.

[1] I see I forgot to use two of my favorite words, antepenultimate and the even better pre-antepenultimate, when writing about this series the last two years. Bad form, Andy.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Quote of the Week: Holding Them Down

Paperweights are not really necessary [to a writer], but they're nice to have and often come in handy. (See above.) There are two types: glass balls in which it snows and all others. The second kind is better. However, buying a paperweight is bad luck; a good paperweight is something you already have, something that is given to you, or something you found in the desert. (Do not confuse this last with something you found on the beach; that is an ashtray.)
 - Gene Wolfe, "The Writer's Tool Kit," p.379 in Castle of Days

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Two-Thirds of Castle of Days by Gene Wolfe

So I read Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun" again recently -- for what I think is the third time, with at least a decade and a half in between each one -- and wanted to keep that line of thought going.

Wolfe wrote a follow-up novel, The Urth of the New Sun, which I have and might get to sometime soon. But he also wrote a small book of essays about "Book of the New Sun," and I have a known weakness for the essays of fiction writers. (I weirdly gravitate to them even when I have the same writer's fiction available -- sometimes even as the first thing I read by that writer, as with George Saunders recently.)

That book, The Castle of the Otter, is long out of print on its own, but it lives on in 1992 portmanteau Wolfe collection Castle of Days. Days combined the story collection Gene Wolfe's Book of Days with Castle of the Otter and then bolted on about a hundred and fifty pages, in a third section of uncollected essays called "Castle of Days."

That's what I just read: not the fiction, which I might get to again some day. [1] But the non-fictional two-thirds of Castle of Days.

Castle of the Otter contains eleven essays, all but one of which originally appeared in that book. From internal evidence, Otter was written and assembled and possibly even published before the last "New Sun" book, Citadel of the Autarch, which seems odd. But "New Sun" was a big success, so clearly Wolfe wanted to capitalize on that with this small-press book -- he might have thought he'd never get a similar chance again. It would have been better to have more of a look back, and a collection that treats the "New Sun" text more comprehensively, but Otter is what we do have -- and it's rare to have any published secondary sources from the author. It's all interesting, in that crookedly erudite Wolfe manner.

"Castle of Days" is loosely divided into sections called "Writers," "Writing," and "Books," with a total of twenty-nine pieces (with an asterisk, since one "piece" is four separate letters to different people) originally from 1978 through 1992. There are a couple of speeches, some introductions, the aforementioned letters, general essays for reference books and other places, a couple of stories snuck in the middle, and some of the obligatory let-me-stake-out-the-boundaries-of-this-fictional-genre pieces that every writer has in his head and many put down on paper.

Wolfe was an occasionally grumpy writer, always opinionated and often not willing to probe the bases of his opinions. (Particularly if it hit anywhere near teleological or religious questions: Wolfe was Catholic, and that was it for him.) He can sometimes come across as smug, or maybe just self-satisfied. But his thinking was powerful and often deeply convoluted, which makes the stray moments of and-here-I-declare-I-am-right easier to take.

Many of these essays are about a SF market that is long dead: no wannabe writer should read the essays here as a model for a modern career. (I snorted at the assertion that editors read a lot of unsolicited submissions. Sure, maybe they did in 1982, and even in 1992.) The pieces about writers -- Budrys and Kress and the cyberpunks and the field in general -- are timeless, even with occasional moments of Wolfeanism.

I doubt anyone reading this will pick up this particular book anytime in the next five years, so this is very much not a recommendation either way. This is a book that still exists, and I recently read two-thirds of it. If you are weird in your reading in ways that line up with the ways I am, that may be of interest to you.

[1] I know I read this package for the SFBC back in 1992, and might have even bought it for them then. That was a long time ago.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Hav by Jan Morris

This book is an allegory, unless it isn't. Or maybe it's two allegories, of different things, written twenty years apart.

What is it an allegory of (if it is at all)? Well, author Jan Morris doesn't say, or even hint. And the introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin denies any whiff of allegory.

So: do you believe the author, even if she's clearly being puckish and more than a little vague? Or a third party with her own opinions and disdain for formal allegory?

Hav presents itself as two different travel narratives. The original Last Letters from Hav is supposedly the letters Morris wrote from this small Eastern Mediterranean principality to some publication, collected into a book soon afterward in 1985. Twenty years later, she returned to a radically changed Hav -- the beginning of that radical change was what made her leave in '85 -- for a week and wrote Hav of the Myrmidons, which first appeared in this omnibus edition. They're both quite short: the whole book is barely three hundred pages.

That's what it says it is. Every allegory has two levels: what it says and what it means.

Hav doesn't actually exist. Morris never quite makes clear where it would be, this small peninsula guarded by a sharp rocky escarpment. It points south, possibly from somewhere in Turkey -- less likely Greece (since then it would point into the Aegean, and it would be harder to aim straight south) or Syria and almost impossibly somewhere on the Black Sea or the Sea of Marmara. But, since it's not real anyway, it can sort-of be in all of those places and none of them. It can have Russian and "Arab" and Greek influences and history -- and even a random Chinese community, because Morris wanted it to.

Hav is the kind of place a travel writer makes up out of the pieces of all of the other places she visited. Maybe not the places she liked best, because Morris isn't that kind of a writer, but not the places she hated most, either. Maybe the places that most intrigued her, the places that were the oddest, quirkiest, most specific. Maybe the places that she wanted to twist a bit to one side or the other, that she wanted to fiddle with in her mind to make them something slightly different. Maybe any or all or none of those things.

(Morris is still alive, and apparently still vital, at the age of 92. Anyone who cares really deeply could try to ask her. I doubt there would be a straight answer, though.)

And the other side of the allegory? What does Hav mean?

Last Letters presents it as one of those quirky, quaint small countries beloved in travel writing -- full of officious bureaucracy and deep secrets and surprising connections to all of the things Morris likes best, a history that is deep and rich and more important than the reader expects. There are hidden currents under the placid surface, of course -- and the ending, in which Morris flees Hav ahead of a mysterious Intervention (presumably by some stronger power, Turkey or the USSR or some less likely nation), makes it clear that those hidden currents were stronger and deeper than Morris-the-character realized.

(Morris is, of course, at least two people in Hav: the writer who made it all up, and the traveler who experiences it.)

Myrmidons drops an older Morris-the-character a more modern, sharper-edged society: I was reminded a bit of late-period Ballard in the emphasis on shiny consumer surfaces, though Morris's manner and affect is miles from the chill of Ballard, and Morris-the-character doesn't fit into the new Hav the way a Ballard protagonist would. This piece feels closer to allegory to me -- or perhaps I'm just closer to that world to begin with, so I can see more of the outlines of Morris's means there.

These two narratives are at least sly commentaries on what travel writers do, and how observation changes what is observed, even if they're not formal allegories. Perhaps that is the allegory, actually: Hav is the Platonic Ideal of the Travel Destination, and Morris-the-character is the equivalent Observer, precipitating out revolution or unrest by her mere presence. And the difference in the two allegories would then be the differences in expectations between 1985 and 2006 -- how the world has changed in that time, and what "we" want out of our travel experiences in those two moments.

What I like about travel narratives, I realized while reading Hav, are the surprises, the interaction of an observer with a real world that does not fit preconceptions and that refuses to follow rules (allegorical or otherwise). Hav is an interesting, unique book -- and I am, as always, fond of fake non-fiction for a lot of reasons -- but the fakeness of the travel narrative was like a constant itch in the back of my skull while reading it: this was exactly the opposite of what I wanted from a book like this.

I think I'm a pretty quirky reader, though. So I try to recommend, or dis-recommend, as clearly as I can, since my guess is that most people are not looking for anything like what I am in a book. Hav is a book in a tiny genre: the fake travel narrative. It doesn't pretend to tell a larger story; it has nothing of the novel about it. It is written entirely as if Hav were a real place, and things much like those that happened in other real places happen in Hav. It's not funny: it is not a joke. Morris is serious, even if she's not going to tell us exactly what her allegories mean.

If it's an allegory at all. Which it may not be.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Mage: The Hero Denied Vol. 2 and/or 6 by Matt Wagner

So this is the end, huh? After thirty-some years and around twelve hundred pages of comics, Matt Wagner's comics fantasy autobiography is done.

(If you don't know what I'm talking about, the earlier pieces are the two volumes of Mage: The Hero Discovered from the mid-80s, the two volumes of Mage: The Hero Defined from the late '90s, and the prior collection of this 2017 series.)

Almost anything I could say here would be spoilers of one sort or another, so I will try to be vague without being totally pointless. Mage: The Hero Denied, Vol. 6 has a confusing volume number -- it's the second half of Hero Denied, and only number six of the overall series -- and should encompass the lowest point of hero Kevin Matchstick and then his triumphant conclusion.

It does that, reasonably well, and gives space for the rest of Kevin's fictional family to shine: wife Magda, son Hugo and daughter Miranda. They're not allowed to be heroic in the same way Kevin is, perhaps because they are not comics-makers in the real world, and so can't actually fight nasties in the metaphor the way he can. But they're active, and useful, and not just people who Kevin needs to save -- which is nice. He's the one who has to do the important stuff, since he's the one who looks like Wagner.

The metaphor is still very vague: I don't think each series is meant to be about a specific comics project or time in Wagner's life; just a transmutation of "sitting at a table writing words and drawing lines" into "wacking evil with a baseball bat just like the characters he draws." And the Big Evil of all three series is the same: the middle book was slightly different, in a generational way, but Denied goes back to the original Big Bad. And the Big Bad doesn't relate to the real-world end of the metaphor at all: there's no force or entity conspiring to stop comics creators, unless it's something universal like Death or Entropy or Watching Cat Videos Instead.

Also, at the end of this story Kevin Matchstick is explicitly done with heroing. I want to leave it vague exactly as to why, but that's another way the metaphor diverges strongly from Wagner's own life -- his own kids are old enough to collaborate with him on comics (his son Brennan colors this book), and he's clearly still working.

In the end, Mage is much more superhero comic than it is transmuted autobiography. It's the story of a guy who looks like Matt Wagner but does comic-book stuff instead of creating comic-book stuff. And Wagner is not the kind of creator, it appears, that cares about digging into the wellsprings of creation to tell stories about that act: his shtick, like most of modern commercial comics, is making pretty pictures of people hitting each other until the world is saved.

So, after three stories and more than a thousand pages, Mage ends up as just decent superhero comics with a vague mythological shell and a this-is-me conceit that doesn't go much deeper than the surface. It might still be too weird for a lot of superhero-comics fans, because they are stunted and blinkered individuals, but sucks to their assmar.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/3/19

This week I have five books to tell you about, and they all came from the library.

(My current reading regime seems to be successful. I still don't want to jinx it, but I will admit that it was mostly driven by a heat wave that sent me away from my computer -- in a basement where the air-conditioning doesn't reach -- up to a cooler room without electronic devices. We'll see if I keep up with the same plan once it's not broiling here.)

Hephaistos is the eleventh in George O'Connor's series of young-adult graphic novels about the Greek gods: I've been reading, enjoying and recommending them for the past decade. This is the penultimate book, unless his publisher decides to throw more money at him to continue with books on the Titans and random other creatures. That would be awesome, but I don't expect it. Maybe he'll go to the Norse gods next?

Rock Steady is Ellen Forney's book-length comics follow-up to Marbles, which I liked a lot. However, there's a big asterisk there: Marbles was a memoir, the story of how Forney learned she was bipolar and got to a solid regime that keep her stable. Rock Steady is the opposite: a book of resources for bipolar people to help them get and stay stable. So it's a very worthy thing, but so far less engrossing for those of us who aren't actually bipolar.

Your Black Friend and Other Strangers is a collection of mostly agitprop comics by Ben Passmore. I've seen his stuff on the Nib, and watched at least part of the animation based on the well-known title story, so it was worth checking out more of his comics.

No Fair! No Fair! is a book of poetry for and about children, by minor versifier Calvin Trillin with illustrations by Roz Chast. Generally, I buy everything Trillin publishes, but the childrens book by an aged writer of other stuff is not a noble genre to begin with and Trillin's verse is doggy on top of that -- I seem to have entirely avoided his last book of political "deadline poetry," 2013's Dogfight, and I have no desire to now go back and correct that omission. So this one gets borrowed and returned.

I, Renee Tardi, Prisoner of War in Stalag IIB is a big biographical graphic novel about the French cartoonist Jacques Tardi's father, who was indeed a prisoner of war in Stalag IIB during WWII. There is a second volume already, which has also been translated and, happy for me, is also available through my local library system. So I hope to read both of them before the end of the year, Jah willing and the creek don't rise.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Quote of the Week: Snappy Answers to Your Questions

With admirable concision, you ask, 'What caused you to write The Book of the New Sun, and how were you able to do it?'

Obviously, those are two questions sharing a single mark; and obviously too, both can be answered on a number of different levels. I might, for example, answer, 'Free will. And I own a typewriter.' But I think your readers might be impatient with both those replies.
 - Gene Wolfe, "Helioscope," p. 217 in Castle of Days

Thursday, August 01, 2019

The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders

First of all, I have to admit that Saunders's name always makes me think of the Kinks song "Celluloid Heroes." Then I have to remember that song name-checks George Sanders -- though in Ray Davies' nasal London accent, so it's easy to be confused -- and not this author, who was fourteen when that song was released.

Then I have to get re-organized and start again.

The Braindead Megaphone -- as long as I'd digressing this much, let me also mention that I keep typo-ing the title as the Braindead MAGAphone, which makes me snicker, which maybe tells you something about my personal views, or maybe about my lack of typing skills -- is a 2007 essay collection by the modern American writer George Saunders, not by the mid-century British actor George Sanders. As is usual for essay collections in our fallen world, it doesn't explain where or when any of the pieces originally appeared, which is common but still annoys and depresses me.

Presumably, these are from the half-decade or so preceding the collection, but that's a pure guess based on their subject matter and my assumption that his profile was growing from his first collection in 1996 through his second in 2000.

They are very various: a couple of pieces on the kind of general topics that gently hint at political directions but give the writer plausible deniability by not standing for any particular candidates or parties, some travel journalism for GQ, literary introductions and appreciations. The first category has aged the most, especially the title essay, which comes across as sweetly naive about what propaganda is and does and is designed to influence and tries to be above the fray in that typical both-sides-ism by absolutely not engaging with the fact that both the megaphonism and the braindeadness are deeply purposeful. It's nice to be for civility and honesty and clear language and not killing people for abstractions, and it would be even better to live in a world where those were broad bi-partisan ideals.

We don't live in that world. It's arguable if we lived in that world in 2002-2006, when Saunders was writing these essays, but it was easier to believe we did, at least.

The three long pieces of travel journalism have that ping-pong Saunders style -- as if he has to dump every thought that comes into his head, as rapidly as possible, to show every shift of his thinking -- which can be exhilarating, but they mostly reminded me of how that whole model of journalism is dying. Who has the money these days to send a Famous Writer halfway around the world to give his Hot Take on some weird thing going on?

The literary pieces have aged the best, since they were about old stuff to begin with. Great books, as I'm sure someone said, more or less, are news that stay news. Reading this book made me want to re-read Slaughterhouse Five again (and then, by extension, Catch-22).

But most of it just made me feel old and tired and trapped in a world I never made, like some third-rate Marvel superhero. If you enjoy that feeling, boy howdy was 2019 made for you. And you may want to find this book.

Books Read: July 2019 (and catch-up)

So the last time I did this was for January. Um, yeah.

I think I just forgot, though embarrassment cannot be ruled out as a contributory cause. Here's what I've read since then -- it's not a very long list, though July has found me with a new reading regime that seems to be working. (No explanations, or promises, for now -- I've learned my lesson.)

February 2019:
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Everybody Lies (2/9)

Stanley Bing, 100 Bullshit Jobs...and How to Get Them (2/11)

March 2019:
{fx: sound of crickets}

April 2019:
Kickily, Perdy, Vol. 1 (4/2)

Doug Mack, The Not-Quite States of America (4/23)

May 2016:
P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves in the Offing (5/6)

Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer (5/7, in Shadow & Claw)

Gene Wolfe, The Claw of the Conciliator (5/16, in Shadow & Claw)

Gene Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor (5/23, in Sword & Citadel)

Tad Tuleja, Curious Customs (5/28)

June 2019:
{fx: a distant, ominous buzzing sound}

July 2019:
Gene Wolfe, The Citadel of the Autarch (7/3, in Sword & Citadel)

Roger Zelazny, Creatures of Light and Darkness (7/6)

Brandon Graham, Pillow Fight (7/9)

Kij Johnson, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (7/10)

Jan Morris, Hav (7/17)

George Saunders, The Braindead Megaphone (7/20)

Lavie Tidhar, The Violent Century (7/26)

Gene Wolfe, The Castle of the Otter (7/28, in Castle of Days)

Gene Wolfe, "Castle of Days," (7/29, in Castle of Days)

Matt Wagner, Mage: The Hero Denied, Vol. 6 (7/30)

Steve Erickson, Rubicon Beach (7/31)

As always, past performance is not indicative of future results. I have no idea what I'll read in August, or how much of it, or whether anyone will care. But I do this primarily as record-keeping for myself, so I think I'll be back in a month with an update. We'll see.