Thursday, May 28, 2020

Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown

One of the problems with reading fewer books is that you tend to concentrate on what you already know. And if, like me, you try to write something about those books as well, you could end up repeating yourself over and over, spamming links to your back catalog, and just generally digging yourself deep into the ground of your own obsessions.

In other news: I worry about the wrong things all the time, wasting brain-power on ridiculous thoughts and silly concerns.

This book, though, doesn't fall into my usual traps. I've read some Box Brown -- his book Andre the Giant, some other things here and there -- and I keep thinking I should read more of his stuff, but he's not one of my "favorites."

So I've just spent three paragraphs telling you about things that aren't relevant to this book and have nothing to do with it. Perhaps I'm out of practice with this blogging thing? (Or, maybe, I'm just bad at it.)

Brown has been making mostly non-fiction comics for about a decade now -- Tetris was his book after Andre the Giant, from 2016, but he's done three more books since then -- and they all seem to be about things loosely related to the media (child Hollywood stars, Andy Kaufmann, the history of the criminalization of marijuana). Other than that, there's no clear through-line: my guess is that he makes books about subjects that interest both him and his publishers (First Second, mostly)...which is not unlike a lot of other non-fiction writers outside of comics.

I don't think his name has any connection to the 19th century escaped slave and abolitionist speaker Henry Box Brown, but it can make him difficult to Google. His real first name is Brian, which seems to be creeping onto the covers of his most recent work.

Tetris is the story of the game, starting with Alexey Pajitnov and Vladimir Pokhilko at the Moscow Academy of Science in 1984 and rolling out through the years afterward, with a lot of game-company skulduggery and maneuvering over the rights, particularly in those early days. Brown tells it straight, starting with the creators just before they thought of the idea, and moving forward in time, introducing all of his other characters as they come into the narrative.

Brown's art is bright and crisp: mostly line art with an orange wash over the top of it. He has a lot of dialogue in this book, which is probably quoted from previous accounts (which were themselves probably paraphrased, since nobody was taping these conversations and half of them were in Russian). It's popular nonfiction about a popular thing, and Brown makes the twists and turns of the Atari-vs.-Nintendo plot interesting and differentiates all of his computer executives, Russian bureaucrats, and game programmers over the course of about 250 pages.

It made me want to play Tetris after reading it. I did play Tetris after reading it. I have to count that as success for a book.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Wallace Mystery by Rick Geary

I've written a lot about Rick Geary here over the years; I'll try not to repeat myself too much now. His comics work for the past couple of decades has been variously-titled series of graphic novels, generally in a slightly smaller physical format than a standard pamphlet comic, about famous historical murders of the last two hundred years, in the US and UK. (Or regions that are today parts of those nations, to be pedantic.)

There was the Treasury of Victorian Murder, the Treasury of XXth Century Murder (which may officially be ongoing), the Little Murder Library (which is definitely ongoing), and various one-offs and other things. The one thing they all had in common: murders that got a lot of media attention at the time, so they had enough primary and secondary sources for Geary to sift through to make his comics.

The most recent book in this long string is The Wallace Mystery; it's part of "Little Murder Library." Like the previous books in that series, Geary self-published it through his Home Town Press, and publicized and capitalized it through a pre-publication Kickstarter campaign. It's not yet available in his webstore -- and not available anywhere else that I can see -- but will probably be available through Geary eventually.

For now, you might have to settle for me telling you about it.

Geary's self-published books are a bit less "finished" than the ones he publishes through others (mostly NBM, the last twenty-five years or so). The front covers are simpler, there's less text on the back, and the spine is really minimalist. The art is comparable in style: one or two largeish panels, fully drawn with watercolors to add depth and tone. The text is typeset, though, in a square all-caps font  that is clean and readable but which I don't love that much. (And comics feel less like comics when the type is clearly set -- a good font-based-on-the-artist's-lettering can go a long way to avoid that.)

But they're otherwise pure Geary -- it's just Geary with less publishing support, obviously because he's doing just about all of the work himself.

Wallace Mystery tells the story of the 1931 murder of Julia Wallace of Liverpool, a 52-year-old married woman with no obvious enemies or problems. For the usual reasons, her husband William was the primary suspect, and ended up going to trial for the killing. Geary tells the story in his usual style: generally straightforward, but occasionally florid, with excursions into theory and unanswered questions, the product of a mind pulling on all of the strings at once.

Geary runs through the whole story, through the death of William and the other major characters. That's one of the benefits of his matter: you can end cleanly if everyone is dead, even if important facts (like actual proof of the murderer) are still in dispute.

Wallace Mystery is not one of Geary's major books: in general, my advice with Geary is to pick a murder case you've heard of and read that book first. Unless you're an expert on Liverduplian history, this will not be that. But it's another good entry in that string, and it's great to see him still doing his thing, dependably and well, this far along in his career.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

O Josephine! by Jason

I'm endlessly fascinated by the minutia of the commercial end of stories: how they are distributed and manufactured and repackaged for different markets. Think of the serial-versus-GN fight in American comics, or the way a Twitter feed can become a book. Sometimes I get fascinated about pieces of the process that are obscure or non-public, and turn to speculation.

So: I don't know that the four comics stories collected in Jason's 2019 book O Josephine! were originally published as separate albums in France. I suspect they were, at least some of them, though they're different lengths, which tends to argue against that. (An album is a tightly-formatted thing, generally -- though maybe O Josephine! takes the main stories of albums that had other small pieces to fill them out...I'm spitballing wildly here, on essentially no evidence.)

I've said before that if I were King of the World of Books, every book would be clear about the previous publication of its components. But I'm not, and it isn't. Especially here. O Josephine! says nothing about these four stories -- it has a minimal table of contents to tell us that there are four of them, and what pages they begin on, but that's it.

My assumptions: Jason (actual name: John Arne Sæterøy) is a Norwegian cartoonist long resident in France and generally first published in the French language, so I assume these stories all came out in some form in France. Possibly as standalones, maybe in collection with other works. Maybe even this exact package. This was before 2019, since time-travel is not a thing. I guess they were relatively recent -- from the past decade.

I could be wrong about several of those assumptions.

O Josephine!'s four stories are all Jasonian -- though some more than others -- but they have very little else in common. So, yes, they're all told in four-panel grids with anthropomorphic characters, generally in a deadpan tone. The two "non-fiction" stories have captions for narration; the two pieces that are purely fiction do not.

But "The Wicklow Way" is a memoir, the story of a walk on a famous path through Ireland (either a warm-up for or a follow-up to the journey Jason chronicled in On the Camino), where the interest is in spending a few days in Jason's head as he walks through the Irish countryside.

"L. Cohen: A Life" is a slightly fictionalized -- actually much less fictionalized than I first thought, since the man's life was deeply weird -- of the life and career of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.

"The Diamonds" is the story of two detectives surveilling a seemingly ordinary couple -- well, it starts there, but spreads outward in that Jason fashion, as unusual things and semi-related characters keep coming up in the narrative and the world spreads outward.

And last is the title story, the epic love story of Napoleon and Josephine. Josephine Baker, in that usual Jasonian screw-historical-accuracy fashion, where everything does take place in time, but all time is the same time. It's a tragedy, or a family story, or a love story, or a revenge story. Maybe more than one of those.

I don't know if these are as good as the best Jason stories -- I still think Hey, Wait and I Killed Adolph Hitler and Why Are You Doing This? are his best stories. (Or, today I think they're his best stories; I might have a slightly different list tomorrow.) But they're good, strong mature Jason stories, showing he do well what he does, and that other cartoonists generally don't. That might not be the place to start, if you haven't started, but it's a fine place to continue.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Is This How You See Me? by Jaime Hernandez

Two years later, here's a one-shot I Love (And Rockets) Monday -- because the Brothers Hernandez have kept making comics, and those comics do make their way into books eventually, and even more eventually I will read them.

Is This How You See Me? collects a Jaime story that ran from the end of the book-size annual New Stories into the beginning of the current magazine-sized Vol. IV comic. And I covered it, more or less, in the last post of the main run of I Love (And Rockets) Mondays.

The story? Maggie and Hopey, now pushing fifty (possibly from the other side) head back to Hoppers together for a punk reunion that neither one of them is all that enthusiastic about.

Well, Hopey is never enthusiastic in a positive way about anything: she was a ball of chaos in her youth, and has settled into a cynical sour middle age. Maggie is more mercurial, as usual, wanting to believe that things will be wonderful but continually remembering all of the other times she believed that things would be wonderful and they weren't.

So they both know that you can't go home again. And they don't live that far from home to begin with: they didn't get that far or do that much, all of their dreams of rock 'n' roll or prosolar mechanicdom to the contrary. We don't know what their old friends do for a living, exactly, but we suspect they're more successful: Terry has been making music all this time, at least successfully enough to have a career as a leader of various bands. And Daffy was never as punky as the rest, a girl from the nicer side of town who went off to college and seems to be solidly in the professional/managerial class. (Remembering that Maggie manages an apartment building and Hopey is a teacher's aide -- both jobs they fell into in mid-life when other things fell apart.)

None of that is text, but it's definitely subtext. Punk was one of the regular youth-fueled screams of rage and rebellion, giving voice to people who felt like their lives had no good options. And they were not wrong.

But we all have to live our lives, not just protest them. Punk bravado burns out, or starts looking silly. Maggie and Hopey are long past the point where punk attitude was relevant to their lives, so this is like any other reunion: wondering who will be there, whether any of it will be worth it, whether it can provide any of those moments of clarity we live for.

This reunion is scripted by Jaime Hernandez. So there will be moment of clarity, for us as readers if not for his characters. I'm afraid Jaime's central characters are cursed to never have clarity: that may the most central thing about Maggie and Hopey. They will never really understand themselves, or each other.

Well, I may be wrong. They're getting older, and they're getting better at seeing clearly.

This is the story of one weekend in about 2016, with flashbacks to 1979, when the two girls were young and fearless and something that passed for innocent and damaged in different ways than their middle-aged selves. I can't say if it will be as heartbreaking for people who can't remember 1979 -- who haven't lived fifty or so years themselves. I think so: I think Jaime is that good. But it has more punch the more of this connects with you personally, like any good art.

The more any of us live, the more regrets and what-ifs we accumulate. They can overwhelm us, I guess, if we let them. Is This How You See Me? is about wandering through those piles of regrets and what-ifs without actually talking about them, about seeing where you are this year and looking back in wonder and surprise and awe at who you were forty years ago.

It does not have the electric shock of The Love Bunglers. It's a quieter book, a middle-aged book. But it's just as strong, just as true, just as real. And Jaime Hernandez is still one of our best storytellers, working fearlessly in a form he's made his own.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

By Night, Vol. 1 by Allison, Larsen, and Stern

I am unabashedly a John Allison fan; I'll say that up front. I may not have been quite as much of a long-term Allison fan as some -- I discovered him around the time Scarygoround begat Bad Machinery, if I remember correctly -- but I've been reading his stuff for a decade or two and writing about it here for nearly as long.

So if I say that his new-ish series By Night, whose first volume I just read, is slightly disappointing, I want to be clear that I mean that I am not gushing about it in the manner I usually do for Allison projects. It's fun and zippy and quirky and interesting; it's a good comic. It's just not as Allisonian (at least to me) as I hoped.

So, now that I've just deflated the whole thing before I even started, what is this By Night comic, anyway?

Well, it's written by Allison, as I implied. Art is by Christine Larsen (probably best known for a stint on the Adventure Time comic; possessor of an awesome website with lots of excellent art) with colors by Sarah Stern (whose website is only very slightly less awesome). It began in mid-2018 and seems to have ended with issue #12.

It's about two young women, former friends from school who meet again in their dead-end town in their mid-twenties and go on a quirky supernatural adventure together, eventually pulling in a larger cast of oddballs from that town. So far, it sounds very Allisonian.

But the town in question in By Night is Spectrum, South Dakota, and Allison is exceptionally British. (One might even say quintessentially so.) There are other parts of By Night that made my editor's red-pen hand twitch, but the core of my uneasiness is that Allison's dialogue and phrasing here is often not quite American, while also not quite being as sprightly and clever as his usual. He is definitely aiming to write Americans, and it was a grand experiment...I just think that it doesn't play to his strengths.

Anyway, Jane Langstaff is the studious, serious one and Heather Meadows is the free-wheeling wild child (as we have seen often before in Allison's work). They meet up again in this dying town, and Heather convinces Jane to go along on her mad scheme to investigate the newly-unprotected Charleswood Estate, which was once the commercial heart of the town, back before its founder and driving force disappeared mysteriously. They go there, and discover a portal to an alternate world populated with fantasy creatures and various dangers, wandering in and out a couple of times, guided by a goofball local, and...well, that's about it in these four issues.

I assume there's a larger story about that mysterious founder, and probably Deep Secrets about the fantasy world, and these issues have plenty of plot, but it doesn't end up going in ways that makes much of a story. Things happen, then other things happen, and a few more people learn about the portal -- but what, if anything, any of that means isn't clear at this point.We also don't see much of the fantasy world; the story tends to cut away from it to go back to our world -- either because Allison is more interested in the real-world end, because he's setting up for a bigger reveal later, or just because, I can't say.

There's one more collection available, of the next four issues, and I expect a third will be forthcoming to finish it up. (Well, maybe I hope it will be forthcoming; from the publication schedule, I would have expected it last fall.) I plan to see where this goes; it's not a long story, and the creators are all doing good work. So I reserve the right to later say that I've changed my mind, and this is just as awesome as other Allison works. That would be a nice outcome, actually: I want to love things.

If you're less of an Allison fan than I am, I wouldn't pick this as your entry point. Giant Days or his webcomics (which have the advantage of being free) are much better for that. But if you want to see how he handles Americans: here you go.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Eye of Mongombo, Book One by Doug Gray

Serialization, the fans of floppy comics are fond of telling us, means that stories actually get told, since their creators can get paid while they're working. If a creator had to finish an entire story before publishing anything...well, that might take years, and clearly no one can live on nothing for years and so, ipso facto, Batman has to punch people every month or else comics won't exist at all.

(I may be horribly mangling their argument for my own purposes.)

But serialization just means that stories can start. Market forces, timing, and the creators' circumstances will affect that story once it's running -- no storytelling mechanism can avoid those things. And so a lot of serialized stories don't manage to end. They stop mid-way, for whatever reason, to be picked up later, quietly forgotten (Billy Nguyen), loudly forgotten (All-Star Batman and Robin), or stop-and-start for an extended period of time (Hepcats).

Which all brings us to Doug Gray and The Eye of Mongombo. It was a comic book from Fantagraphics, launched in 1989 and expected to run twelve issues, but the last issue was #7, in 1991. I read it at the time, enjoyed it a lot, and kept hoping it would come back -- I've mentioned it on this blog a few times, I think.

Spongebob Narrator Voice: twenty-eight years later

Doug Gray re-emerged last year with a Kickstarter and a plan to finally finish Eye of Mongombo and publish it as three album-format books. The campaign did not hit its funding target, but Gray decided to finish the story anyway, and the first book was published at the beginning of this year. So I got to read a big chunk of Eye of Mongombo for the first time in a few decades -- I did own the comics (until they were destroyed, with all of my other comics and most of my books, in the Flood of '11), but I don't think I'd pulled them out to read since maybe the mid-90s at best.

Eye is a goofy late-80s comic, from deep into the black-and-white boom, and it did set off to tell one story. A long, convoluted, silly story packed with reverses and incidents, yes -- one that could be told well in serialized form -- but a single story.

Our hero is two-fisted anthropologist Dr. Cliff Carlson, who begins the story by first being fired by one nemesis (department head Nuskle) and quickly afterward being turned into a duck by another nemesis (Jumballah, some kind of witch doctor). Cliff is smart and cunning and quick on his feet, so being duck-ified only momentarily slows him down: he's soon off to find the fabled treasure of the title along with his unworldly grad student Mick and his sexy girlfriend/fellow adventurer Raquel.

Unfortunately, Nuskle stole the map for the eye, so Cliff and friends are chasing "Numbskull" (and his dimwit brother-in-law). And there's at least one other group, some nefarious types who also seem to be among Cliff's many nemeses. All set off for South America, variously hiding from, stalking, and attempting to murder each other.

Gray went into animation after Eye's aborted first serialization, and his story has the energy and one-damn-thing-after-another pacing of a good cartoon. It manages to stay a silly adventure story rather than a parody, which is a tricky balancing act: Gray isn't making fun of his characters (well, not all of them), but using them to tell a story with funny parts.

The art looks pretty much like I remember the original Eye, but the Kickstarter page has multiple examples of improved panels compared to the originals. Clearly, my memory is faulty...or Gray got pretty good by the end of the first serialization, and that's what I'm remembering. Either way, it will be interesting to see what the back half of Eye looks like, once we get past the reworked early-90s stuff and get into entirely new pages.

Eye is not great literature. It's not a lost comics classics. But it's a great goofy adventure story, filled with oddball characters and drawn with verve. I liked it a lot in 1989, and I still like it a lot now. I really hope Gray manages to finish it this time and maybe, just maybe, goes on to do other stories as well.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Jesus, I hope you're not expecting much today. Because there's no way I'm doing this book any justice.

I re-read Catch-22 over what turned into a six-month period -- started in late November, left to one side for vast stretches of time, finally finished May 3rd -- in part because I read Slaughterhouse-Five last year and wanted to return to that well, that mid-century yawp against the barbarity of war and pointlessness of everything. And partly because I've been having trouble getting motivated to read, and finding time to read, and finding places to read, this past year or so. I always love strong writing voices, and sometime really great books jump-start my enthusiasm for reading and books.

Not this time, obviously.

No one is born knowing anything, and everyone is ignorant of millions of things. So I shouldn't assume  all of you, or even any of you, know instinctively about Catch-22.

Joseph Heller was born in 1923, and went off to WW II in the Army Air Corps, where he flew 60 combat missions as the bombardier of a B-25 over Italy. He came back, went to college, got an MA in English from Columbia, went into advertising, wrote some stories. His first novel was Catch-22, in 1960, about the bombardier of a B-25 over Italy, in a group where the number of missions keeps going up.

He wrote other stuff later. Some of it is very good. None of it had the impact of Catch-22. Hardly anything has; it's generally considered one of the best books of the 20th Century, with various adjectives, depending on who's talking: American, by a man, about war, post-WW II, post-modern, etc.

Catch-22 is told in a nearly chaotic, circling fashion, with lots of chapters of varying length, which are not necessarily presented in chronological order. Yossarian, that bombardier, is at the center of the book, but he's surrounded by a large cast of oddballs, weirdos, and aggressive lunatics. It is amazingly funny on the surface and deeply heartbreaking when you stop to think for a second about any of it. More characters than you think will die horribly in the course of the book, and you may even laugh at the ways they die. It probably goes on a bit too long. It doesn't end as well as it could -- it has the kind of structure that's fiendishly hard to close out, and it takes a last-minute turn to break out of its core conceit to get to something that works as an ending and is not unhappy.

A novel is a long piece of writing with something wrong with it. A great novel is an electric long piece of writing with something wrong with it. Catch-22 throws off sparks almost continuously for nearly four hundred of its 450 pages, and has a Bruegelesque tour-de-force chapter of a chaotic, horrifying occupied Rome even after that point. So don't get the idea that I'm complaining.

If you know Catch-22, you know this next quote. If you don't, though, it explains everything.
There was only only catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and he could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to, but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.
"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.
Not everything about Catch-22. Everything. The 20th century. Modernity. The state of mankind. Life, the universe, and everything. That kind of deal. There is only one catch, but it's the best there is.

Catch-22 is a book about being trapped in an insane, irrational world, with insane, irrational people, doing insane, irrational things. Our world. Yossarian may be the only sane man. He may instead be insane in a slightly different, more self-centered way. And what's the difference, anyway?

So Catch-22 is a great book that is paradoxically easy to put down. Each chapter is nearly a separate short story. It's filled with great moments and quotable lines and intense personalities and the urgency of potentially imminent death. And I did put it down, repeatedly, before I finally got to the end.

This edition is the 50th Anniversary paperback -- there may also be a simpler version for the new TV series, but I don't know about any of that. It has a fawning, windy introduction by Christopher Buckley, which just delays actually getting into the book. But it also has an extensive collection of backmatter (over 60 pages!), which is interesting to publishing-nerds like me, with a potted history of the writing and publishing of Catch-22, a preface by Heller from 1994, and nine other critical/historical/explanatory pieces by various folks from the past fifty years. You can probably find a used copy cheaper if you're not interested in all that bumf, and, for your first time reading Catch-22, you probably won't want any of it.

But Catch-22 is a book that you should think about reading at least once. It has its flaws -- I mentioned the ending, and it also has very few women, and those even more caricatured than the men -- but it's a major book about modern life that is as true today as it was in 1960 or in the 1940s it depicts. It is funny and true and shocking in almost equal measure, and there is very little else like it.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 5/16/20

It's been a while, hasn't it? All of my usual mechanisms for getting new books have been, as we say around here, fakakta lately. I had mostly fallen off publishers' mailing lists before they were all sent off to their homes and stopped mailing physical packages at all. Libraries are shut down in this neck of the woods. And I haven't been buying much because I haven't been reading, well, anything.

But I did start reading, a bit, this past week or so, and, to celebrate that, I bought two books (also, and possibly primarily, because I was already buying something from Hegemonic Internet Retailer). These are them.

Tales of the Dying Earth is an omnibus of Jack Vance's four "Dying Earth" books, published in 2016 by Tor. It has a copyright page that lists the original dates of all four books, and even includes some details of the magazine publication of portions of Eyes of the Overworld, which is probably overkill at this point but warms my heart. That page also notes that the four books were first assembled as The Compleat Dying Earth by the Science Fiction Book Club in 1998, which is entirely true and bittersweet to remember. (Reader, that was me. I also managed to get a cover that was more appropriate than this one -- I love Berkey's work, and it's appropriate for a lot of Vance, but not this book.) I have, obviously, read these books before. But I've felt like re-reading some Vances, and I lost all of my old Vance books (including my copy of Compleat) in my 2011 flood.

Network Effect is the fifth book and first novel by Martha Wells about Murderbot -- see this blog for my gushings about the previous novellas. This may actually be the next thing I read after the book I currently have a bookmark it; we shall see. And I don't have much else to say about it: I like the series; I haven't read this one yet; I intend to.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Quote of the Week: Insert Contemporary Political Reference Here

You know, that might be the answer -- to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That's a trick that never seems to fail.
   - a proposal by the tricky Colonel Korn to the conniving Colonel Cathcart, about the Problem of Yossarian, p.139 of Joseph Heller's Catch-22

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Free Shit by Charles Burns

Apparently, if you're a cartoonist and go to shows to sell your stuff -- sketches, self-published comics, comics published by other people, merchandise, whatever -- you also get a steady stream of people who don't want to spend any money and just want "free shit."

For whatever reason, Charles Burns decided to humor them, and started creating quick 8-page minicomics actually titled Free Shit around the turn of the century. Now, it doesn't look like he made them to actually humor the grabby lookie-loos, but instead gave them to "friends and VIPs" at conferences, which makes me think of Free Shit as a particularly odd business-development resource.

After almost twenty years, Fantagraphics collected the first twenty-five issues of Free Shit into a book of the same name -- though the cover coyly only has a FS, possibly to make it safer for work. (Note: very little of Burns's actual work is safe for work anywhere normal.)

It's a small hardcover, and it has all of the pages of those twenty five issues -- 25 x 8 = 200 pages of comics, sketches, collages, and other image-making detritus -- and basically nothing else. There's no front matter, and only a single page note from Burns in the back, saying more or less what I did above but in a more personal way. There isn't even a title page to say "Free Shit by Charles Burns," just a half-title with a big FS.

This is only rarely comics art; it's not in sequence. Instead, Free Shit is full of sketches, ideas, small finished ink drawings (lots of head-and-shoulders views), things that seem to be ripped out of mid-century magazines (and may well have been), and other random things. For example: Free Shit #8, the "special literary issue," was entirely made up of columns of hand-written phrases, presumably potential titles for something-or-other.

Burns' work skirts the verges of body horror regularly: his people, even the ones with normal body proportions and features, are fleshy in a vaguely unsettling way. And many of the people and things in these pictures are not of normal body proportions. But a sketchbook is hard to make creepy, so it's just images -- weird images, odd images, bizarre images.

This is obviously just for Burns fans, but it's a nice package for people who like sketchbooks -- smaller and more portable than usual, and cheaper than many "big selection from the sketchbooks of" books. The one thing it isn't -- unless you steal it from a store that is actually open right now -- si Free Shit. And that's just ironic enough to be awesome.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Uncyclopedia by Gideon Haigh

In the early years of this century, there was an odd mania in the bookworld: small books filled with lots of random facts jammed together onto small-format pages, usually with a pseudo-retro look as if they emerged straight from the late 19th century.

Ben Schott and his Miscellany was the great originator, as far as I know, but every successful market niche brings competitors. Every jobbing writer with a file-cabinet full of clipping to attest to his various manias pulled together a proposal, and some of them got contracts.

One of the early books in that derby was The Uncyclopedia by Gideon Haigh, published in 2004. (Only a year after the original Schott's Miscellany.) Haigh is an Australian journalist who's particularly known for his coverage of cricket...which lines up well with Schott, who was a graphic designer who fell into collecting random facts.

Uncyclopedia, like the Miscellany, has no clear organizational structure and is full of lots of lists of random things -- from the three men in the boat to how to fold an origami swan (with diagrams) to the UN Charter. The descriptive copy refers to it as "a reference book," but, frankly, it is nearly useless as reference: there is an index, but you'd have to know what random facts are included here to even think to check it.

So it is instead a well-designed, attractive book of random information, suitable for reading in random moments, with the hope that the reader will remember some of those random facts and use them in his life going forward. (And, if not, no big deal.) Uncyclopedia succeeds on that level, though, as a book from 2004, it's a bit dated at this point.

If you ever hit the end of the four Miscellany books and despaired that there were no more in the world, you are in luck: this is very much the same kind of thing. If you're looking for a collection of snippets that can be ready quickly and easily in random free moments, you are also in luck. But this is otherwise a basically forgotten book from a nearly forgotten subgenere, less than two decades after its birth. So pass all the works of man.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Eurekaaargh! by Adam Hart-Davis

Hey, remember Past Times? It was a chain of shops, based in the UK but having a mail-order and retail presence in the US as well, from the mid-80s until they collapsed in 2012.

Basically, if you wanted stuff like what you'd get for donating to PBS without actually donating to PBS -- or other vaguely British, antique-themed, or retro goods, primarily for gifts -- they were your go-to outlet. (And I may sound dismissive, but I got their catalog for twenty years, shopped in their stores multiple times, and bought plenty of tchotckes there.) [1]

They also had a fairly extensive publishing operation, since a lot of what they sold were books, and the mills of Big Publishing didn't grind twee quite fine enough for their needs. One of those books was the 1999 volume Eurekaargh! by Adam Hart-Davis, which combined a delve into the Patent Office records of at least two countries with some familiar-looking public-domain art to keep its board covers about 180 pages apart.

And I read that book not too long ago: it's yet another bathroom book that I'm catching up on, now that I'm pretending my ennui has dissipated. (Note: never claim to have gotten over anything, particularly vague psychological conditions. The world delights in hammering hubris.)

It is pleasant and factual in its way, with a dozen chapters offering, as the subtitle puts it, "a spectacular collection of inventions that nearly worked." In other words, it collects early versions of things that later became important -- cars, bicycles, airplanes, motorboats, flush toilets, small appliances, medical devices, and so on -- and explains quickly why those versions didn't work but led the way to later versions that did.

There are lots of illustrations, mostly taken from the patent applications themselves, making this an easy, quick read. The book is in a small format, making it convenient to carry if you did want to read it on the go -- though the content, being in lots of little snippets, makes it more suitable for reading in random moments in one place. (As I, in fact, did.)

I'm not exactly recommending it, and I'm not exactly not recommending it. It is what it is, it's amusing at that, and it fits the Past Times standard of "stuff about how the world 50-125 years ago was quirky, interesting, and/or better."

[1] I am less clear on what their USP was to people who already lived in Britain and were surrounded by vaguely British stuff already. I presume the retro piece was even stronger on that side of the pond.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Quote of the Week: Who Do You Want to Be Today

The schizophrenia of America is that nowhere else do people choose new identities for themselves more readily, and nowhere else does the public more adore and despise them for it. In past centuries people's names were the spoken telegrams of where they'd come from and therefore who they'd been; this was a time when people were extensions of the very earth beneath them,. In America, roots are the things which bind people and hold them down. People rip the roots out, and then romanticize what's been severed, in that way Americans always romanticize that of themselves they've destroyed: English royalty, the Confederacy, Billy the Kid.
 - Steve Erickson, Leap Year, p.47

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Very British Problems by Rob Temple

This was another bathroom book -- I'm trying to clear out a backlog caused by my extreme ennui over the past six months or so -- and I probably don't have much to say about it.

I mean: I'm not actually British, obviously. And this book is small and frivolous under the best of circumstances, and the best of circumstances were in Britain in 2013 when it was published. But it's fun and zippy and entertaining for those with the right mindset -- that mindset being common in Britain but clearly not restricted to that location -- and I read it, so it gets a post here.

Anyway: Very British Problems. The first book by journalist Rob Temple, and the first major brand extension of the mighty Very British Problems empire, which has since extended to three further books, a TV show, and (possibly only in my brain) a commemorative series of tea-towels, the bespoke Very British Umbrellas, and the smash hit franchise opportunity, Very British Curry Takeaway Stands.

It all began, as things often do this century, as a Twitter feed, which is still active. Temple wrote tweets about various situations he found himself in -- one could also characterize this process as "writing jokes," which is the source of a lot of the best of Twitter. It's all centered around the default assumptions about (white, middle-class, mostly male) British people: they are embarrassed and self-conscious about everything, they live in a land of miserable weather, they will queue up at the slightest opportunity, they never say what they are actually thinking, and their highest pleasure is a nice cup of tea.

These, as we all must admit, are not new jokes. But they are very durable jokes. More importantly, Temple is good at making them, and Twitter turned out to be a great format for both the jokes themselves and the worldwide distribution of same.

And so the Twitter feed started in December of 2012 and this book emerged, collecting posts from that feed, on 10 October 2013. This is breathtakingly quick for book publishing, and illustrates one of the great benefits of Twitter-to-book: the content is already entirely text, and in nice bite-sized pieces which can be easily flowed onto pages of arbitrary size and layout.

The book has twenty-seven chapters, a few of which ("The Very British Test," "Very British Weather," and so forth -- helpfully called out in the Table of Contents in italics) appear to be brand-new content for the book, since they are not written in the format of Tweets. But most of the book is in that lots-of-small-blocks-of-text format, obviously: that's the point.

Again, this book is frivolous, made up entirely of jokes about a certain perception of a certain kind of presumed-to-be-iconic British person. If you like that joke, you will like the Very British Problems empire, and this is a good entry point to that green and pleasant land.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Trillin on Texas by Calvin Trillin

Sitting in the drafts on this very blog is an essay I will never write -- almost the only thing on paper is the title: "I Am Not Calvin Trillin's Son-in-Law."

I'm not going to explain that here. I'm not sure I could. That's what the essay would have done, if I were able to do it. But Trillin is a writer I've been reading for thirty years, since I think my earliest working days, and is one of the best models I know of how to be a good writer and a good man: funny, pointed, true, dogged, smart, engaged, whimsical, honest, committed, clear-eyed.

As you go through life, people ask in passing who your heroes are, who you look up to. I've never been good at those questions: I tend to say I don't have any. But I suppose my heroes are newspapermen and similar jobbing writers, the ones I read a lot of when I was young and impressionable, whose path I wanted to follow while knowing I never would. Trillin. Art Buchwald. Russell Baker. Dave Barry, sometimes. Mike Royko. Roger Ebert.

But mostly Trillin. He combined a regular-guy honesty and plain-spokenness with the real writing chops befitting a New Yorker staff writer. He had a deep understanding of the sneakiness and chicanery of political life that never descended into simple cynicism, like a Molly Ivins who somehow maintained optimism and focus despite it all. And I kept reading Trillin whenever I could even for the twenty years or so that I was officially on the other side of the great American political divide. (I still tend to say, when asked, that I am registered as a Republican, as if that was an event that can't be taken back.)

And here I am writing about him in the past tense. Calvin Trillin is still very much with us, in his mid-eighties, still living in Greenwich Village as he has for fifty years or so. But his most recent books of new work were a slim book of doggerel about the 2012 presidential election and the 2016 children's book No Fair! No Fair!, so he may be semi-retired at this point. And I've always thought his prose was much better than his verse -- frankly, I think everyone does, even Trillin, but he enjoys writing verse and when you're an American icon in your eighties you can do what you want.

So we're in the era where the "new" Trillin books are collections -- 2011's Quite Enough, the racial-relations-themed Jackson, 1964 from 2016 (which I still haven't seen myself). And the subject of this blog post: Trillin on Texas, an oddity from a writer born in Kansas City and associated strongly with New York, published in 2011 by the University of Texas Press.

It's relatively short, with eighteen pieces in its hundred-and-eighty pages, plus a quick intro from Trillin. Those pieces originally appeared from 1970 through 2008, and all of them (except a funeral oration for Molly Ivins) originally appeared somewhere journalistic (mostly the New Yorker) and likely also appeared in a more general Trillin collection. So this is a book for Trillin completists and readers of Texiana (is that the word I mean? frankly, is it a word at all?).

I don't care all that much about Texas myself -- I mean, a whole lot of my current colleagues live and work there, in the Dallas area, and I like and respect them, and I do have a cousin and her family in Austin, but it's not one of my top five states -- so I was here as a Trillin completist. And I was not disappointed.

The pieces here are semi-random, and arranged in a pleasing order that has no obvious structure -- it's not chronological, and if it's geographical, I'd have to plot it out on a map to understand it. But each of them is smart and witty and full of great Trillin lines -- look, here's a semi-random quote, from "Mystery Money" on p.21:
The City of Waco found that having nearly five hundred thousand dollars in cash was a burden. The money had to be kept somewhere. I had to be guarded. It represented a potential liability if it got lost or if the city was sued for giving it to the wrong parties. A lot of parties were asking for it.
I'm not actually recommending this book, unless you're a) already a Trillin fan who didn't know about it or b) a Texan who needs an excuse like this to try Trillin. Otherwise, head to his collections of columns (my pick: Enough's Enough, the title essay of which influenced my parenting style as much as Calvin's dad), or his books about food (best collected in The Tummy Trilogy) or the great Travels With Alice.

Actually, just start with Travels With Alice. I did, thirty years ago, and it's just as good now. Someday, you'll get to the other end of his books and pick up Trillin on Texas. It'll be there waiting for you.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Totally Weird and Wonderful Words edited by Erin McKean

There are different kinds of people in the world. We've all heard of a "people person" or an "animal person," and we could extend that schema to include people who prefer complicated machinery (hardware and/or software), to those who only care about the appropriate gender for their amors, and to the people who care most about ideas.

Me, I'm a word person. I think we're one of the smaller of those tribes, but my first career was in book publishing, an entire industry built by and for word people, so I may just be indulging in the old "it is a proud and lonely thing to be like me, one of The Chosen People." There may be vast numbers of us. If you're reading this, you're probably among them.

(And, yes, it's a reductive idea and no person is actually just one of those things. I'm talking about tendencies and preferences here, obviously. Stop being so literal, bud.)

Totally Weird and Wonderful Words is a book for us. More than that: it's one of the best books for us -- for those of us who read and prefer the English language, at least. Erin McKean, one of the world's premier word-persons -- editor-in-chief of the Oxford American Dictionary Program and editor of Verbatim: The Language Quarterly -- compiled two collections of interesting and quirky words (2002's Weird and Wonderful Words and the following year's More Weird and Wonderful Words), which this 2006 book combines and integrates.

I won't claim that it has all of the weird and wonderful words in the English language; that would be patently false. But it does include several hundred of them, organized and explained by an expert.

McKean even explains what she means by "weird" and "wonderful" up front, in the new introduction to this compilation that sits alongside the original introductions for the individual books. (Scholarly publishers are the best for making sure to include every last possible bit of metatextual apparatus, and I love them for it.) A word is weird either orthographically -- because it has odd combinations of letters unusual in English -- or because it describes a weird idea or thing. Even better, a word can be weird in both ways. And a word is wonderful because it means something interesting, describing in one quirky word a feeling or thing that otherwise needs several full sentences, or that was difficult to explain at all -- it's wonderful because it evokes wonder, at the thing it depicts or that it exists at all.

I read this book back a ways -- it was my bathroom reading last autumn, and I finished it in early November -- so the specific words I was going to call out in this post have all fled my brain since then. But I can tell you I found something fun and exciting on every page: both the old favorites that I use myself and great quirky little-known words that I was previously unfamiliar with.

Many books of words are written for people who are only kind-of word people; they're half-hearted and hope to bring in the fabled (and mostly mythical) general audience. McKean has no time for that nonsense. Her book is filled entirely with the kinds of words she means, and nothing else -- every single one is both weird and wonderful. Totally Weird and Wonderful Words is for people who collect words, the ones who actually do have favorite words (among mine are antidisestablishmentarianism and preantepenultimate, for obvious silliness-of-prefix reasons), and those who actually prefer to read books of words for pleasure.

If that's you, and you haven't seen this book before, you're in for a treat.

Note: The first book had a cover and internal illustrations by Roz Chast. The second had a cover and internal illustrations by Danny Shanahan. This combined edition has the Chast cover and all of the internal illos from both -- unless you are a massive fan of Shanahan covers, it's clearly the preferred package.