Monday, October 21, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/18/19

Three books came in the mail last week -- all things I purchased -- and somehow I neglected to write about them last Sunday.  So here they are:

Very British Problems is the book extension of a multi-media project -- I think it was a Twitter feed first, in that very 21st century way, but there's TV and radio and probably tea-cozies and woolly jumpers and Very British package holidays as well by now. The book is written by Rob Temple, and it's deeply stereotyped, but it's by British people, so that's OK.I am not actually British in any normal sense, but I am emotionally quite British by nature, since northeastern WASPs are their first cousins. Anyway, the book is a collection of small embarrassing, self-effacing moments of the kind that are generally humorous.

Threesome is an old Lawrence Block novel, originally published as by Jill Emerson, and it's a sex book. Block wrote a lot of sex books starting in the late '50s and running through the early '70s, and his main professional activity the last few years seem to have been republishing them under his actual name. I'm a huge Block fan, and I have vague ideas about getting all of those books, since even his early semi-lousy books have interesting aspects. I'm definitely going to pick off a few of the ones that seems to be better-written and/or quirkier, like this one -- the story of a menage a trois told by the three participants alternately.

Last is By Night, Vol. 1, the first collection of a new series written by my favorite webcomicer, John Allison. Allison has been doing more floppy comics lately -- probably because those have a more dependable revenue stream, and who can blame him? -- but it's meant that I'm forgetting to keep up with his work, and that's annoying. (For example, shouldn't there be a fourth "Not on the Test Edition" of Giant Days by now? I intend to keep up with that series, but it become difficult if the publisher changes formats and plans randomly in the middle.) This is quite Allisonian, in that it's the story of two (probably headstrong and highly verbal) teen girls who get involved with a supernatural portal in what seems to be a normal small town, and at the same time much less Allisonian, since that small town is in South Dakota rather than the British Midlands.

Friday, October 04, 2019

14th Anniversary Post

I have an excessively tidy mind, but it manifests in pretty idiosyncratic ways.

For example, October 4th was the 14th anniversary of the blog, and on that date every year (except the fifth and tenth, which I missed because...I guess I'm just a normal neurotic human being who undercuts himself) I put up a long post looking back at the prior year.

Doing that post takes a while, so I try to put it into my drafts early, so I can work on it over a period of days, if not weeks.

This year, I did create a dummy post, at least a week early.

And never typed a word into it.

Until today, December 8th, a good two months late.

So this is not that anniversary post. It is, instead, a monument to the fact that apparently I couldn't just delete the empty draft post like a normal person, but instead had to type this.

See you next year, possibly.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carre

So, I've said this before, and I know it's weird about me: I will frequently read the memoirs or other miscellaneous nonfiction of a writer whose books I'm only vaguely familiar with.

The way this is supposed to work: you like a novelist, so you read all of the novels. Then, maybe, you move on to other things. The odds & sods collections of journalism, the memoirs, the travel puff pieces, and so on.

But I'm more likely to read one or two novels (in this case The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, six years ago), then buy a few other novels (making sure to get the ones in the same trade dress, because I'm also quirky that way), and meander along for a few years without reading any of those other novels until suddenly I pick up the nonfiction book and finish that.

My half-serious explanation is that I'm now a middle-aged man, and middle-aged men have a well-known and nigh-unstoppable tropism for non-fiction. It's just one of those things.

Anyway, that's why I read The Pigeon Tunnel, the 2016 memoirs of the man born David Cornwell and who has written a long series of literary spy thrillers as John Le Carre. It's a book primarily for people who have read those other books, obviously -- not least because it's by the man who spent his adult life writing those books. Cornwell/Le Carre was 85 when this book was published-- and is not dead as I type this; he has a new novel coming out before the end of the year -- but he's a public-school boy of the very old school, a former government employee, and a writer who has been burned by publicity many times. So this is a reticent book, an elliptical one, that has no overall structure or focus and which touches on Cornwell's childhood (the traditional wellspring of writers) hardly at all.

Instead, he has thirty-eight chapters of wildly variable lengths over the course of this book's roughly three hundred pages: some are short anecdotes while others, like the long chapter on his con-man father Ronnie, are full-fledged and well-formed essays. They range through his adult life almost randomly, and touch almost entirely on his professional life -- he does write about his parents (separately), but neither of his wives and nothing about his children. All of those pieces include only what Cornwell wants to tell. Even now, as an old man a generation after the Cold War ended and sixtyish years after he retired from government service, he's clear that he doesn't want to reveal any real secrets.

There are a lot of bits about real-life encounters and how those influenced or were incorporated into his novels: again, this will be most interesting to people who have actually read those novels. And those are mostly his novels of the '80s and '90s -- the Cold War books, the Smiley books in particular, the ones that may have come more out of his own experiences or knowledge, are the ones where he does not have anecdotes to tell us.

He does tell a few stories of his time in government service, though -- mostly escorting West German dignitaries through London in the years around 1960, acting as their translator to UK prime ministers or whorehouse madams. And he of course tells a few stories about the movies and TV shows made from his work: the usual stories of frantic activity that turns into nothing in the end, and some appreciations of Sir Alec Guinness.

I enjoyed reading The Pigeon Tunnel, but Cornwell is a reticent man at his core, and a reader should bring a lot more knowledge and experience to this book than I was able to in order to get the most out of it. It really is primarily for the Le Carre obsessed, I think.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville

In 1933, a group of French Surrealists described various "irrational embellishments" of Paris, in their journal Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution. Eighty years later, China Mieville decided to use it as the setting for a short novel.

That's reductive and probably not entirely true...but it's pretty close. Mieville was influenced by a lot more of Surrealism than just that one magazine issue, but it's clear that particular transformation was the seed of the book.

The Last Days of New Paris is a 2016 novella about a city transformed by a Surrealist-powered bomb: we see it mostly in 1950, through the eyes of Thibault, a young Surrealist/partisan, with shorter interspersed chapters of the 1941 events leading up to the blast. This Paris has been invaded three times: by the Nazis, who are still around (even, apparently, outside the city, where WWII seems to be still chugging along in 1950); by the Nazi's demonic allies (about whom we don't learn nearly as much as this reader would have liked); and by the manifestations ("manifs," in the words of the locals) of Surrealism called up by that bomb.

And, yes, the Nazi demons do rather seem to have migrated from a slightly different alternate-WWII book, though they are necessary for parts of the plot. Mieville is as usual not interested in simple dichotomies, so there's no sense of Surrealism vs. Hell here: both are bizarre eruptions that Parisians must deal with, both are problematic, neither are as bad as actual Nazis. (In this Mieville is absolutely correct.)

Mieville does not concentrate on the details of the city: at time, it felt like his characters were racing through nature (a wood, perhaps, or overgrown meadows) and not down the streets of a major city. Perhaps they are; that would be very Surrealist, I suppose. But he very much does not have them ducking into and out of buildings, or climbing staircases to get a better view, or traipsing across rooftops, or using any of the other things one traditionally associates with cities. They are instead running through open ground, as if the vast majority of Paris has been leveled -- which is possible, I suppose, but makes it not particularly Paris.

He does have a lot of Surrealist imagery brought to awful life in his city, and there are more than twenty pages of endnotes (after a book barely 170 pages) to explain where they all came from and to bask in the glow of how clever he is.

Thibault's group, the Main a plume, claims to be both Surrealist and an anti-Nazi partisan force, but they are pretty much all dead by the time Last Days begins, and the various partisan groups in Paris come across more as scattered street gangs or tribes, the violence-oriented sector of the few people left alive in New Paris. (Frankly, I was a little surprised anyone could be alive after nine years in a city both entirely cordoned off from the outside world and overrun by Nazi soldiers, demons, and freakish Surrealist creations. There's no sign any of these people are growing food, for one thing.)

So Thibault runs around, to not much effect, and sees a lot of things that Mieville carefully annotates in the backmatter. He soon runs into Sam, a female American photographer who is obviously more than the disaster tourist she seems to be, though she's not the kind of more Thibault thinks she is. They learn some deep secrets of their world, gather a manif of their own -- it follows Thibault due to a leash made by Nazi manif-control science -- and, in the end, save the world, more or less.

The plot is hurried and consists mostly of running around for what never seems like adequate reasons. The world is potentially big and interesting, but Mieville presents it in staccato images, as if he's trying to fit all of his favorite Surrealist ideas into the shortest possible number of pages. The characters are few to begin with, and even the major ones are cyphers: Thibault is an Everyman as much as he's anything, and he's not much of that.

This is a thin book, even thinner than it looks at first, and the very definition of self-indulgent. It will be of primary interest to huge fans of Mieville or Surrealism, or (preferably) both.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden

The really impressive creators are the ones who seem to be able to do anything -- who jump from genre to genre semi-randomly, going wherever their latest ideas take them.

My go-to example of that for the last couple of decades has been Neil Gaiman, whose first six book-sized objects were each honestly described as his first something. But I'm thinking that I might be able to freshen up that example if Tillie Walden continues the way she's been going.

Walden is young -- still on the uphill side of her twenties -- and burst into wide notice with her 2017 memoir in comics form, Spinning. Before that, she did a few shorter books, which I haven't seen yet. (I believe they're mostly in the vein of realistic fiction, but I'm starting to think that belief underestimates Walden.) Spinning was, more or less, the story of Walden's teen years: her life in competitive figure skating, her coming out, her realizing who she wanted to be. Her big follow-up to Spinning is this book: On a Sunbeam.

Now, if you come into the publishing world through the memoir door, there's a certain pressure and expectation to do that again the next time. Or, at least, to tell a fictional story about someone who could be you, in a world like the ones you know well.

Walden was having none of that.

On a Sunbeam is a soft-SF story, set in a wide universe sometime in the medium future, with weird technology that feels semi-biological and which Walden presents as thoroughly lived in. She never stoops to an infodump; this universe exists and the people in it do, too -- she may have figured out the details in her head (or maybe not; it's not necessary), but there's no look-at-how-clever-I-was-to-make-all-of-this-up gloating. She just has a story to tell, about a young woman named Mia who maybe has a little problem with impulse control.

We first see Mia at about nineteen. She's just joined the crew of a ship -- whose name we don't learn for a long time, so I won't mention it here -- run by a small team that rehabilitate ruined buildings on assignment. (I don't want to say that On a Sunbeam's world doesn't make sense, because that's not the right way to put it. It does feel like we're in a very odd, quirky corner of that world, though -- the cultural equivalent of something like artisinal bread-making or microbrewing, a haven for oddballs and weirdos.) She's just out of school, and almost equal parts quietly confused and excitedly racing.

But we also see a younger Mia, about five years before,when she was still at her fancy private school Cleary's. (The school may fly around space on its own: this isn't entirely clear.) She was not a terribly good student, and she was not a terribly diligent student, but she did OK. She desperately wanted to play Lux, the weirdo sport that involves racing small fish-shaped flying spaceships through convoluted tunnels in the dark, and she was even more impulsive than she would be at nineteen, but the Cleary's plot -- despite at first seeming that way -- isn't the story of how she just barely avoided being expelled or worse.

No, it's the story of her first love: Grace, who showed up unexpectedly the middle of that year, quiet and self-contained and sure she was going to become a writer.

The two stories do intersect, and combine, before the end, as they must: that's how a book set in two time-periods works (particularly if they're so close in time as this one). Grace is from a particularly strange and dangerous part of this universe, and Mia's new crew has to go to that place before On a Sunbeam is over.

Walden does subvert the expected teen-love-conquers-all tropes looming over it all: more than once, actually. Mia and Grace are nothing like Romeo and Juliet, and nobody's going to die for love if any of the characters can help it.

They might die for other reasons: the planet called The Staircase can be pretty deadly.

There's one further quirky thing about this universe -- well, only quirky if you're not familiar with a long strand of SF, from Sheri Tepper on back through Joanna Russ all the way to Charlotte Perkins Gilman. They're all women. [1] This is not mentioned or remarked on, the same way they never point out that they eat food to stay alive or that clothes are worn on the outside of the body. It's just the way this society is: men do not exist.

(I'll forgive Walden for erasing my entire gender, since it was in service of the story. As long as erasing huge swaths of humanity doesn't become a habit.)

On a Sunbeam has a lovely loose line, moody colors, an often over-enthusiastic young cast, a big weird universe to wander around, and a lovely (and completely non cloying) first love story to recommend it. So I do. And I expect the next Tillie Walden book will be something else both completely different and deeply familiar: some other young woman finding her way in a complex, messy world.

[1] One character, Elliott, is called non-binary, and "uses they/them pronouns". Both of those things seem entirely the wrong terms for this fictional world, frankly, and show a failure of Walden to think through what she's created. You can't be non-binary if everyone else is unitary.