Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Night and the Music: The Matthew Scudder Stories by Lawrence Block

Matthew Scudder is a creature of novels. All series characters have a length they work best in -- short novels, long novels, novelettes, short stories, drabbles. And Scudder's creator Lawrence Block has characters that work at different lengths: Bernie Rhodenbarr is made for short, frothy novels; Martin Ehrengraf for sharp short stories; and Keller, in my opinion, for novellas.

And, again, Scudder is a creature of novels -- medium-length mysteries (or thrillers, some of the time), with depth of characterization, larger casts, and room for the moral dilemmas that are most important to his stories. Scudder is an ex-cop, a product of the murky 1970s, and has a complicated relationship with honesty, sobriety, and the law -- but a very deep, central relationship with doing the right thing, which has led him down a lot of roads as an unlicensed private eye. He was created for an initial clutch of three novels -- The Sins of the FathersTime to Murder and Create, and In the Midst of Death -- and has appeared in fourteen more in the five decades since.

But Scudder also appeared in three novellas, during the initial book hiatuses of the late '70s and early '80s, and, as Block's most popular character, also popped up in shorter, slighter pieces since then.

The Night and the Music was published in 2011, around the same time as the last Scudder novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, to collect all of those bits of string between two covers. There's since been one Scudder novella published as a book, A Time to Scatter Stones, but I believe that's it. It came out from Telemachus Press, a self-publishing outfit. Block has since published a lot of books himself, both his old quirky backlist and some new books -- those have tended since to be more clearly published by the author, since that's a good trust signal to his audience.

Night opens with the three strongest stories -- all novelette length -- and then drops into shorter pieces, some of which Block actually calls "vignettes" in his informative afterword. All of it is in strong Block prose, all of it is interesting, all of it features Scudder. But most of it is not stories in the clearest sense: it's a record of a few things that happened with Scudder in them, and most of the time, those things include one death and the way Scudder figures out details of that death. Some of the pieces don't even have that.

But this is the rest of Scudder. If you've read the seventeen novels, this is what's left. And those three stories up front are actually really good -- though the third one, "By the Dawn's Early Light," formed the core of the novel When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, and so will likely be familiar to Scudder fans. Those three stories are also about half the book; the other eight pieces take up roughly the other hundred pages here.

If you're a Scudder fan, and didn't know this book existed, I imagine you're happy. If you're not a Scudder fan, try Nine Million Ways to Die or The Sins of the Father or When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. He is, as I've said twice before, really a creature of novels.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Berlin, Book Three: City of Light by Jason Lutes

I keep hitting reading roadblocks, no matter what I do. I used to have a life with a lot of dedicated time for reading and eyes that could stare at pages of text for hours on end, but the past decade has repeatedly broken all of my reading mechanisms, culminating in the minor apocalypse of the past two years. I went from reading 433 books in the Book-A-Day year of 2018 to, um, 43 the year afterward. And 2020 could possibly be even worse.

On top of that, I keep finding new things to stymie me. For example, who would predict that a graphic novel about Berlin sliding into fascism, intolerance, and sectarian violence in the early '30s would be so resonant, and unpleasant, in 2020?

I'm sure Jason Lutes, planning out this giant project back in 1996, would have expected and wanted modern history to go differently, but, as it is, Berlin Book Three: City of Light is immediately relevant to 2020 in ways that are deeply dispiriting and depressing.

Worse for me, the fact that this is the third of three books collecting a story that has been running for over twenty years -- and the fact that Lutes uses a naturalistic style and doesn't go out of his way to introduce characters that I last saw in a book I read in 2008 (see my review on ComicMix) -- means that I only have a vague sense of who these people are and what they're doing. It's a couple of years later in their own lives as well, since Light is set in 1933 and Smoke was mostly set in 1930.

So I respected City of Light and I appreciated City of Light but I had the damndest time getting myself to read City of Light. I don't want to see characters I like struggling as their society plunges into a totalitarian hellhole. (If I want that, I can just read Twitter.)

And let me say explicitly what I alluded to in my review of City of Smoke and what Lutes never says, but hangs ominously over the whole enterprise: every character we like in Berlin is probably doomed. They will all be killed by the Nazis, one way or another, sooner or later.

That's what Berlin is about. How fascism smashes norms, destroys lives, agitates its followers and gets them to do the unspeakable in the name of blood and country. It's a powerful message, especially in 2020, but I don't want to read about it right now.

The way to read Berlin now is to get the big single-volume edition and run right through it -- that will solve my problems of character identification. The other problems, I hope, will start to be solved on November 3rd, and not by a book.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Quote of the Week: It Was Already This Bad in 1997

America wearies of democracy. Thirty years after a war that wounded its heart, twenty years after a scandal that scarred its conscience, ten years after fiscal policies that ridiculed its sense of responsibility and fairness, the country has nearly exhausted the qualities by which democracy survives and flourishes. America feels at the end of its power, and the result is a hysteria of which we're barely conscious, a hysteria in which democracy appears as a spectacle of impotence and corruption. As Americans we have come to act more oppressed by freedom than exhilarated by it, more concerned with freedom from than freedom to. We divide between the vast and growing majority of us who -- out of a sense of futility, confusion, or indifference -- are so disengaged from democracy we never vote at all, and those of us who vote not to thoughtfully resolve complicated issues but to express our rage.
 - Steve Erickson, American Nomad, p.29

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Knickers in a Twist: A Dictionary of British Slang by Jonathan Bernstein

Hey wait -- I just realized the oddest thing about this 2006 book by an ex-pat British writer then living in LA. It was originally published first in the UK.

Don't...don't they already understand their own slang? Wouldn't that be like Random Penguin publishing Shit Americans Say? Who would actually buy that?

(In other news: I haven't worked in trade publishing for a decade, and clearly my is-this-a-viable-product detector is no longer reliable, since this is a thing that happened already.)

Anyway: the book is Knickers in a Twist. The author is Jonathan Bernstein, who I think is the same guy who wrote Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector.

It collects a whole bunch of both current and recent-historical slang used by people in various corners of the UK -- pretty much all things that people who are not yet dead might actually say or at least clearly remember people saying within their lifetimes -- organized into about three dozen thematic chapters to make looking for a term alphabetically more difficult but with an index to make that possible again. Bernstein apparently relied on his own knowledge and asking other British people for research, with possibly an intensive program of taking notes while watching Carry On movies and Two Ronnies re-runs.

I am not British. So if I say that this book seemed entirely plausible to me, as a person living in an entirely different country with a somewhat different culture who has a vague interest in words-in-general and Britishness in particular...well, you can add as many grains of salt as your taste requires.

It is often funny, and it's a quick read, and it will at the very least introduce or re-introduce you to some colorful terms that you can use in your own life, probably confusing everyone around you. I read it in the smallest room of the house, and it was admirably suited to that purpose. I can enthusiastically recommend it on those bases.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker

My biggest surprise: that I'm still angry that Kage Baker died, even a decade later. It was so senseless, so clearly wrong, that I wish I believed in some anthropomorphic personification so that I could blame that being for doing something so horrible. But I don't, and I know the world is pointless and random, that cruelty is only a human term, a way of looking at things that just are.

None of that changes an emotional reaction, of course. It never does, and never will. And that reaction has nothing to do with any of her books: she's gone, but they will endure. (Let's hope something similar can be said for all of us.)

The Anvil of the World was Baker's first fantasy novel, originally published in 2003. She later wrote two more novels set in the same world, The House of the Stag and The Bird of the River. I read Bird when it was published, and read other short pieces set in that world over the years, but I'd been saving Anvil and House so that I would still have Baker novels to look forward to reading. After ten years, I decided it was time for this one.

Anvil is officially a novel, but actually three related novellas -- very clearly and obviously so. The first one was published separately as "The Caravan from Troon," but I don't think the others appeared separately. So this is not actually a fix-up; just a novella that grew sequels and turned into a longer book.

Baker was always a great writer of novellas, that most SFFnal length, so this is entirely a good thing.

Baker's unnamed world is fantastic, but mildly so -- there are gods, somewhere outside the world, but they don't interfere directly. (There are, however, demigods that are very much in the world, living very long lives and shaping entire societies, so I may be making a distinction without a difference.) In the region that we've seen in her novels and stories, there are three distinct races, all of which can interbreed. First are the demons, the original inhabitants, who are said to be nonhuman, and at least the upper ranks of their society are made up of persons who are effectively immortal and have at least some limited shapeshifting ability. Next are the Children of the Sun, an expansionist and inventive human race who spread like locusts over a century or three until some cataclysm kills most of them off -- said cataclysms generally caused by the Children. Last are the green-skinned Yendri, who live in the forests of this part of the world and are subject to religious manias -- they're not quite the Good Indigenous People to be seen in contrast to the expansionist, casually destructive Children, but they're in that general region and individual Yendri certainly use that line of rhetorical attack during Anvil.

Our main character is a man of the Children, now calling himself Smith. He's in his early middle years, and is trying to get away from what are told was a very successful and eventful career as a professional assassin in various city-states of the Children. (There are many of those cities scattered across this continent, and the Children fight among each other as much if not more than they fight with others.) Smith is almost preternaturally good at killing people, but he wants to stop doing it. So, as the first section begins, he's taken on a new job, under his new name, as a caravan master from Troon to Salesh-by-the-Sea. It's a somewhat dangerous journey, through a semi-wilderness populated by Yendri tribes and bandits (mostly half-breed demons), but no more so than a long sea journey of the 18th century.

His passengers on that trip, though, are a mixed and strange group, including a courier who is clearly a member of a dangerous Children gang, a Yendri herbalist with his own secrets, and the reclusive, supposedly sickly young Lord Ermenweyr and his Nurse Balnshik. More than one of those passengers attract unwanted, violent attention on the route, and Ermenweyr turns out to be the half-demon son of the Master of the Mountain, the fabled leader of a slave rebellion turned into a cross between a bandit king and a feudal lord, as well as one of the demigods I alluded to before. (Ermenweyr's mother is also a demigod, of a very different kind, and whose history with the Master is complicated and threads throughout all of Baker's fantasy stories -- he either abducted her as a bride or she came to marry him on purpose to tame him, or possibly both.)

Since I've already mentioned that Anvil has the structure of three novellas, it should not be a surprise if I say the caravan does reach Salesh, more or less as planned.

At that point, Smith and his crew settle down there to run the Hotel Grandview, with an eye to a life that will be less fraught with danger. But Smith will not be able to avoid danger, not least because he's now something like a friend (or something like a pet, or something like a distant vassal) of Ermenweyr, who will return to Salesh in search of excitement and fun of the kinds only a teenage demigod and powerful natural mage can contemplate.

So the second section sees the Grandview during Festival time, a particularly raucous and public celebration of fecundity in all of its forms. (Baker is particularly amusing in describing this: she doesn't go in for body parts but gives a kaleidoscopic overview of the all-encompassing festivities.) [1] Ermenweyr arrives for a visit at the same time, hiding out from a wizard's duel with a rival he semi-inadvertently offended. And a guest dies mysteriously, right as the Grandview is undergoing a major inspection. Smith must solve all of those problems by the end of Festival, and he does so very amusingly.

The third, longest portion of the book is less amusing, on purpose. Ermenweyr essentially kidnaps Smith and Willowspear, the Yendri apothecary attached to the hotel, supposedly to save his sister from Yendri fanatics...though Ermenweyr's story does change somewhat in the course of their journey. Smith's amazing facility with murder gets a deeper examination, and a deeper purpose. And something like the fate of the world -- or the world of at least a large portion of the cast -- is eventually at stake.

(Well, I did say it was a fantasy novel. Such things are traditional.)

Baker had the gift of always being readable; she was one of those writers whose each sentence just leads to the next one, seemingly effortlessly, making it easier to just keep reading than to ever stop. Her people are quirky and specific, embedded in their particular worlds but reminiscent of our own. And her plots are full of complications and reversals both funny and frightening; she was a master of tone and could switch it up almost on a dime.

Anvil is a lovely book. I'm happy to live in a world where there are two more novels set in the same world, but we all should live in the world where a still-healthy Baker has written another one every two or three years since, and will keep doing so for another couple of decades. Sadly, "should" never enters into it, does it?

[1] Oh, all right. Have a quote, from p.175:
Next came rolling a half-sized replica of the famous war galley Duke Rakut's Pride, its decks crowded with sailors and mermaids, waving cheerfully at the crowd despite their various amatory entanglements.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

American Nomad by Steve Erickson

In a better world, there would be more books like American Nomad -- it's the "sequel" to Leap Year, with novelist Steve Erickson following the 1996 US presidential race in a kaleidoscopic fashion once again. If he'd done that every eight years since (it would be horrible to have to experience every Presidential election that way), we'd have books for 2004 and 2012 and he'd be working on one for this year.

Of course, in an even better world, the US wouldn't be so screwed up that we'd need books like Erickson's to explicate it, but I'm wishing for things in the realm of possibility here.

American Nomad is deeply out of print and mostly forgotten, maybe even more so than Leap Year. I expect only fans of Erickson's novels even know it exists, or have ever read it. It never had a paperback edition. The cover I'm showing here is, as far as I know, the only one it ever had: deeply '90s in all of the good and bad ways.

And that's too bad, because in his visionary way, Erickson saw more clearly what America was, and all the ways it was tearing itself into pieces, almost twenty-five years ago, than most of us can on any given day.

Look, I posted the opening sentences here as a "Quote of the Week" last year -- go read that and come right back.

See what I mean? That's not 2016 -- it was 1996. It was true since 1980, but it took someone like Erickson to make it so clear.

American Nomad is not a book of reportage: one strand of it is Erickson's flameout as Rolling Stone's reporter on the race, hired to provide a unique novelistic take and then immediately subject to publisher Jann Wenner's mercurial demands, most of which were to be more like a reporter. (There's also a cutting quote, from some other reporter, to the effect that Wenner's not sure if he wants to publish great journalism or get invited to the White House after the election.) And that's probably the most factual strand of the book.

Erickson was always a visionary writer rather than a plotty one -- things happen in his book, and are always inevitable in their bizarre glory, but they happen due to buried rules of deeply unknowable universes and secret underground connections and the pure force of human desire. In his novels, they happen to characters that he invents and that live lives separate from their author. In Leap Year, they happened largely to a fictionalized, out-of-time version of Sally Hemings, who was Erickson's conscience or guide or muse.

American Nomad has only Erickson: it's a book taking place in his head, as he travels across America covering the race, or wonders what to do after being fired from covering the race, or half-assedly covering the race anyway without press credentials, or just blasting out full-force Ericksonisms about the way the world really is.

And, like Leap Year, 1996 turned out to be much less of a race than anyone expected, or any of the political reporters Erickson ran with wanted: it was another snoozer, the ending never in doubt. So what Erickson had for American Nomad was the contents of his own head: luckily, those were brilliant.

If you want to understand the buried politics of America, you could do far worse than to read Leap Year and American Nomad. You will likely disagree with lots of Erickson's thoughts -- I did, and I wouldn't be surprised if he did, too, now or even at the time. But he gets the apocalyptic fervor of American politics, the burn-the-whole-damn-thing-down energy from both ends of the spectrum, better than anyone more factual, and brings that to imaginative life on every page.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Quote of the Week: Job Opportunities

In the late seventies, Miami, like other American cities, had a steady increase in the sort of murders that occur when, say, an armed man panics while he is robbing a convenience store. It also had some political bombings and some shootings between outfits that were, depending on your point of view, either running drugs to raise money for fighting Fidel or using the fight against Fidel as cover for running drugs. At the end of the decade, Dade County's murder rate took an astonishing upturn. Around that time, the Colombians who manufactured the drugs being distributed in Miami by Cubans decided to eliminate the middleman, and, given a peculiar viciousness in the way they customarily operated, that sometimes meant eliminating the middleman's wife and whoever else happened to be around. Within a couple of years after the Colombians began their campaign to reduce overhead, Miami was hit with the Mariel Boatlift refugees. In 1977, there were two hundred and eleven murders in Dade County., By 1981, the high point of Dade murder, there were six hundred and twenty-one. That meant, according to one homicide detective I spoke to, that Miami experienced the greatest increase in murders per capita that any city had ever recorded. It also meant that Miami had the highest murder rate in the country. It also meant that a police reporter could drive to work in the morning knowing that there would almost certainly be at least one murder to write about.
 - Calvin Trillin, "Covering the Cops" (Feb 1986, profile of Edna Buchanan), in Killings, pp.284-5

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Killings by Calvin Trillin

Calvin Trillin spent a couple of decades as a reporter on the road, mostly for The New Yorker, mostly writing medium-length pieces about interesting news stories every three weeks. [1] Some of those pieces went into his U.S. Journal collection, but the strongest ones had a common thread -- well, the best stories usually have something to do with death somehow, so it's no surprise.

Someone realized that, Trillin or an editor. And in 1984, there was a themed collection of those stories about deaths, whether murders or accidents or something in between. That was Killings.

In 2017, a new edition of Killings came out. It's unclear whether any of the stories from the 1984 edition were omitted, but six stories originally published from 1985 through 2009 were added at the end. (I read the original edition of Killings sometime in my first run through Trillin back in the '90s, but I lost that copy in the flood, and now can't say if the old book really was only about 160 pages long.)

Trillin is a great reporter: he tells the stories he finds clearly and precisely, and leaves in the ambiguities as he finds them. More than that, he signposts the ambiguities, walking around all sides of them to see what exactly is ambiguous, what's clearly known but ignored, and what can't be spoken about. Each one of these twenty-two pieces benefits from his eye and words: we know more and understand better each of these situations than we would have otherwise.

Twenty-one of those stories are about a sudden, violent death. Usually one that's someone else's fault -- though a lot of these have arguments in at least two directions, including, as is always the case, the dead person him- or herself. Sometimes, a particular person was found legally responsible, and Trillin goes through that process as well, with the same level of skill and ability that he brought to the stories of the deaths. He also is deeply interested in what a fancier writer would call the milieu of the deceased: where and how they lived, what kind of people they were part of, what communities are in this town or city or country and how they interact. I'm putting that in a quiet way, since Trillin strives to be factual and specific, but any death has some level of passion surrounding it -- and many of these deaths had far more passion than that. There are conflicts between "straights" and "freaks" at the beginning of this book, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, and other more modern conflicts later on: refugees without as much of a lifeline as they needed, farmers losing everything, men falling into bizarre theories to explain why their lives didn't go as planned. And of course, families -- it comes down to families a lot of the time.

The last story -- out of chronological order, on purpose -- is a profile of Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan in 1986, before she turned her hand to fiction and became more famous, back when she was just a well-respected reporter on the hottest beat in a hot city. Buchanan was a fancier writer than Trillin, in a modified tabloid style, but one master will acknowledge another.

Trillin has the strengths of the best reporters: he can tell you the facts so that you understand more than the facts. He can explain, as much as anyone can, why people do what they do, and describe what they did do honestly but not salaciously. And Killings is one of his best books of reportage: maybe because it has the best material, maybe because it was written during the time he was most intensely a reporter. The stories here, many of them, still resonate in 2020 -- these are stories about American deaths, in ways that Americans still die today.

[1] Or I can let him explain it, better than I could, from his new introduction to this edition:
For fifteen years, starting in the fall of 1967, I traveled around the United States to do a series of reporting pieces for The New Yorker called "U.S. Journal" -- a three-thousand-word article every three weeks for somewhere in the country. (Magazine writers asked, "How do you keep up that pace?" Newspaper reporters asked, "What else do you do?")

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde is one of the world's premier quirky writers, and I say that with the highest appreciation. He started off with the deeply metafictional Thursday Next series -- about a heroine who can dive in and out of books to fix them, and does -- and has gone on to write other series about dragonslayers in a pseudo-modern Balkanized UK and hard-boiled detectives in fairy tales (both of which are also pretty damn good).

Early Riser was his new novel for 2018, and, for about the next three weeks in this country, is still his newest book. (The Constant Rabbit is on the way, and already in print in the UK.) As of right this moment, it's a standalone, but it could turn into a series.

Right now, it looks most like Forde's previous standalone SF [1] novel, 2010's magnificent Shades of Grey. It's set in a unique quirky but self-consistent world -- Grey was a medium-future insular Britain ruled by levels of color sight and a generationally-slow stepwise dismantling of all technology and civilization; Riser is set in an alternate world with massively higher, and possibly increasing, glaciation and consequently hairier humans who mostly hibernate the winter away; its Britain is not as deeply insular but all of Fforde's books are about Wales first and everywhere else barely at all -- and features a young man of minor means and background who is rapidly thrown into the deep end of biggest secrets of his world.

So this is about Charlie Worthing, who grew up in what the reader eventually figures out is a government creche, populated mostly by the children created by government requirement to keep the population from plummeting. The world is deadly, mostly because of Winter: only a small handful of people are awake then, and many of them don't make it to Spring. Of course, a lot of sleepers don't make it to Spring either, which is seen as the way of the world. The entire society is organized on a minimum-viable-skills basis, so whoever is left alive at any given time can keep things going...and it's pretty clear that's because "whoever is left alive" has been random and capricious over and over again for a somewhat different version of the history we know. And where are we in that history? From what I gleaned, it's the early 1990s -- but I could be wrong.

Charlie has few options in life: he was expected to stay as Assistant House Manager of St. Granata's Pooled Parentage Station for as long as he survived. More than that: he should be happy for that job. His birth deformity made his life shaky to begin with and St. Granata's gives him Morphenox, the drug that keeps sleepers from dreaming during hibernation and has greatly reduced the number of non-wakers over the past generation.

But instead Charlie has found another way out, trying to make his own life for himself. That falls apart, due to enemy action, in the first pages of Early Riser, and Charlie instead finds himself as a very junior Winter Consul, part of the elite group that keeps the peace while most of the world is asleep. And, like many Fforde protagonists, he's very rapidly thrown in much deeper than he expects, sent far away to a place he can't escape from, and enmeshed in various plots that he only dimly realizes at first even exist.

Winter is even more deadly than the weather: there are bands of Villains emboldened to attack with most of the law-abiding population asleep, and zombie-like Nightwalkers irreparably damaged by Morphenox, and maybe -- if you believe some rumors -- semi-supernatural Wintervolk as well. Plus some very large organizations that don't get along with each other very well and are trying to squeeze Charlie, each from their side, for ends that he hasn't figured out yet.

So the question of Early Riser is: will Charlie make it to Spring? And what will he need to do, or to become, to survive that Winter?

I finished Early Riser a month ago, after taking nearly a month to read it, so I'm not going to go into great detail with names and places and plot explications. (This has been a hell of a year for my reading life, but I hope I'm digging out now.) And I don't seem to have had the same initial reaction to Riser as I did to Grey, which I thought was a near-masterpiece when I read it and which still bulks large in the memory. But that may be me: Riser is smart and sharp and full of well-drawn characters who fit into this deeply weird world very precisely.

Fforde writes books in corners of Fantastika that he excavated and furnished entirely himself, and they are all damn good books. I can think of no other writer like him: his humor is sometimes vaguely reminiscent of Pratchett, but that humor is pretty deeply buried in his books these days; that was more typical of the early Thursday Next novels or the two Nursery Crime books. Early Riser is a book about looming death and danger, and a society structured around those threats, as seen by someone who's smart enough to figure things out but doesn't know as much as he thinks he does. Fforde writes books that hit that rare trifecta of being utterly sui generis, deeply readable, and deeply resonant in a literary way. All his books are worth reading: this one, as a standalone, is a great first choice.

[1] I'm not going to define what the "S" stands for. But Fforde definitely works the Fantastika side of the street in all of his work to date.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Because I Said So! by Ken Jennings

Some books I post about here almost entirely as a signpost. It's not that I actually have much to say about that book; it's just that I read it and want to mark that event -- and this is where I keep those records.

So with Ken Kenning's book Because I Said So!, a did-you-know compendium that sat in the smallest room of my house for several months earlier this year and did good work there. I don't really have much to say about it, but I'll try to explain briefly what it is, and perhaps it may eventually do the same work for some reader who stumbles across this post.

Jennings is famous for winning a lot of money on Jeopardy!, a TV gameshow, in the early Aughts. He bootstrapped that minor fame into writing a series of mostly trivia-related books, of which this was the fourth. Because was published in 2012, but I didn't come across it until 2019 -- so I read it a lot faster than most things, which is either an indictment of contemporary fiction or a comment on my relative dearth of bathroom books, you pick.

Anyway, Because is about Stuff Your Parents Told You. Well, possibly not "you" -- it's mostly the standard WASP mid-Twentieth Century upbringing that Jennings is referencing here, since (as he says) that's the life he lived and (I suspect) it's what looked most general and salable to his publishers anyway. So if you come from a different background -- if your parents are some color other than very pale or came to the US fairly recently from somewhere more interesting, or if you're not even American to begin with -- these may seem strange and weird to you. (Which could make the book more interesting: maybe What Those Weirdo WASPs Think would be a lot of fun to you.)

But if you've been embedded in American media for any solid stretch of the past fifty years or so, this will all be familiar: no swimming for an hour after eating, feed a cold and starve a fever, drink eight glasses of water a day, don't run with scissors, if you cross your eyes they'll stay like that, and, of course, you'll shoot your eye out. Jennings rates all of those and more, around 150 sayings and beliefs in total, on a sliding True to False scale, with a lot of Mostly True With a Big But or Almost Entirely Fales But Based on A Misunderstood Truth in there as well.

I am not qualified to judge all of those ratings, and Jennings does not provide detailed references in this consumer-friendly book. (A: not that I would check them anyway. B: though he does explain how he found out the truth, and seems to have done a lot of research.) But my sense is that it's generally correct and accurate for 2012, and, barring any major developments in booger science or the release of a longitudinal study of chip double-dipping, it's still pretty accurate.

So if you are a 20th century WASP, grew up among them, or want to know more about their odd belief systems, this may be a useful book for you.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Quote of the Week: Relative Probabilities

(Just a heads-up, when a murderbot stands there looking to the left of your head to avoid eye contact, it's probably not thinking about killing you. It's probably frantically trying to come up with a reply to whatever you just said to it.)
 - Martha Wells, Network Effect, pp.27-28

Thursday, September 10, 2020

How I Tried to Be a Good Person by Ulli Lust

Turning life into art can take a long time. Ulli Lust's first comics memoir, Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, covered events from 1984 but was written and drawn about twenty-five years later.

How I Tried to Be a Good Person is the "sequel" to that earlier book, in the sense that it's another big book in which Lust looks back at a time in her younger life. This time, the Ulli in the book is a few years older -- say five or so, placing these events around 1989 -- and the original German edition of Good Person was published in 2017, so she's still running about twenty-five years in the past.

But Good Person is different from Today: the first book covered one trip in detail, each day remembered in the bright detail only available when you remember the high points of your teenage life. Good Person is about a stage of life, and longer-term relationships as they shift and flow and bounce off each other.

Good Person is the story of young Ulli's relationships with two men and one boy -- her long-term boyfriend Georg, her eventual husband Kimata, and her son Philipp. But saying that implies a certain shape of story, and Ulli's life was nothing like that story.

Ulli and Georg lived in Vienna, maintaining separate apartments. Philipp, about four years old, lived with Ulli's parents, far out in the countryside, and she only saw him intermittently. That was mostly by choice -- she was trying to establish herself as an artist in the big city -- but her feelings were clearly complicated.

Georg, on the other hand, was much older than Ulli -- almost twice her age, on the verge of his forties. He was a great intellectual match for her: artistic, loving, thoughtful, connected to the theater world. But their sex life was ebbing, and Georg admitted that's what always happens with his long-term relationships. That was unacceptable for Ulli: sex was important to her, and she wanted more of it (and more of that closeness and physicality) than Georg could give her.

They were both modern and bohemian, though, so multiple relationships were on the table. And so when Ulli met Kimata, a man around her age and an immigrant from Nigeria, she fell into a relationship with him. He moved in with her, and she eventually married him to give him legal residency. But Kimata was never quite happy sharing her with Georg, or with anyone, and that drives most of the events of Good Person from the point he leaps onto the page.

The story of Good Person is about Ulli's dance among those three -- mostly with Kimata, as the most demanding and loud, the closest and (eventually) most dangerous. She wanted a life balancing all of the things she wanted most, and more-or-less got it, at least for a while.

And, as she tells the story at a remove of almost three decades, young Ulli was mostly honest and mostly fair, saying what she really meant and giving up secrets as the relationships moved forward. She wasn't perfect -- the older Lust writing and drawing this story makes that clear -- but she knew what she wanted and she advocated for herself almost all the time.

Lust's art is loose and flowing, driving nearly four hundred pages of complicated story and a lot of characters. But the core of Good Person is the words: what she and Georg and Kimata say to each other, in various permutations, over the course of the year or two this all took to play out.

Good Person isn't as immediate as Today was: Today was the story of a moment, and Good Person is the story of a time of life. But it's perhaps deeper and more thoughtful, asking whether it's possible to have all the things we want, and what it might cost to have them -- or what we have to do when the things we do want are in conflict with the things we think we should want.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Network Effect by Martha Wells

You might have heard of this book; the Murderbot series has made a bit of a splash the last couple of years. But, if not, here's the scoop: this is the first novel-length entry and the fifth book about Murderbot, a construct SecUnit (Security Unit, built from biological and mechanical parts, human-level sentient but supposed to be utterly controlled by a governor module) in a medium-future galactic SF setting. Murderbot, soon before the series began, hacked its governor module, as part of the event in which it started calling itself Murderbot (for good reasons).

The prior books, all novellas, were All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy. (Links go to my posts, for those who want more details.) Over the course of those stories, Murderbot (who, by the way, is our first-person narrator and an absolute joy as such) has gotten away from its initial state (chattel of an unnamed company, tasked to protect and probably die for some client) and found something like freedom and what could be friends or family, if you were an entity entirely unlike Murderbot.

Network Effect begins with Murderbot foiling a low-level and mostly bungled attack attempt on its new "family," on a research mission on a random planet somewhere. But, on the way back to their home on Preservation Station, a much better organized, stronger, and more dangerous attack grabs their entire ship and hijacks it into a wormhole, heading off to parts unknown.

It turns out that second attack was related to another "friend" of Murderbot, a brain running a large transport starship that Murderbot calls ART (and whose actual ship name we do learn in this book). So Effect is, as usual for Murderbot books, two things at once: first an action-packed adventure, in which evil forces threaten and are eventually defeated. And, equally as much, an emotional journey for Murderbot, who is learning how to be part of relationships and to function in its world outside of the narrow task it was created for.

Wells does both brilliantly, and intertwines the two portions of the book on every page: the adventure story is the emotional story, and vice versa. I don't want to get into details of the adventure plot, but it's there and suitably thrilling. (Or the emotional plot, frankly.) She's written novels of this length before (and substantially longer, come to think of it), so it's not that she's "stretching" Murderbot plots out longer -- just taking advantage of a larger canvas to do even more of what made the earlier books so good.

I don't read a hell of a lot of SF (or anything) these days, so it may seem like faint praise if I say Network Effect, and the Murderbot stories in general, are among the very best SF coming out these days. But it's what I can say, and I do believe it.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Reincarnation Stories by Kim Deitch

Kim Deitch's graphic novels are usually about old, forgotten entertainment -- vaudeville, early movies, stage magic -- that don't actually exist in this world. And they generally feature prominently a character named Kim Deitch who tells us the story and gets involved in mysteries about those old pieces of entertainment, as well as some events that may be mildly supernatural.

In the books, it's all straight-faced. I'm pretty sure Deitch knows this all is fiction, and plans it all as fiction, though he's not usually one for winking at the reader to give that away...but I think I caught a few winks in his most recent book, Reincarnation Stories.

He might be winking here because this book is even more centrally about "Kim Deitch" and his wife Pam than earlier books have been -- the flashbacks here are mostly to Kim as a child, not to movie sets and vaudeville theatres and mysterious lands. (Though there's some of each of those as well.)

So the first thing to know about Deitch is: this is fiction. You know it's fiction, he knows it's fiction. But what if it wasn't? That's the joy of a Deitch book -- that and his lovingly detailed drawings, which often stretch across entire spreads under long, descriptive captions. (Have I mentioned Deitch is a master of comics? He's been doing this for fifty years or so now, and he's pretty damn good at it.)

This time out, Deitch learns he is, or might be, the reincarnation of failed screenwriter Sid Pincus -- first identified as such at the age of four, by D.W. Griffith in the last days of his life. Stories is told in about a dozen-and-a-half chapters, each of which I believe originally appeared somewhere semi-separately. And each section does somewhat stand alone; Stories is the comics equivalent of a Van Vogt fix-up, all of the pieces written to be both things in themselves and part of the larger whole. That does make the whole thing episodic and slightly less strong than Deitch's best books like Alias the Cat or The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.

But it's still got that unique Deitch energy, that vibration of truth and fiction on every page. And it's centered around "Kim Deitch" learning some quirky and bizarre (and, need I say it again, entirely made-up) truths about the world, life, human existence, and the meaning of everything.

So if you happened to miss it -- it was published at least a year ago -- you have a treat ahead of you.

But if you've never read Deitch before, pick up one of the books more centrally about Waldo, his trickster alter-ego/externalized id to start out with. There'll be plenty more Deitch to dig into, so start with the killers.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 9/5/20

I got three books in the mail this week, and these are them -- three fall titles from Tachyon Publications in their pre-publication forms. (Do they still call them ARCs? I've been out of trade publishing long enough that terminology may have shifted. I still like to call them "bound galleys" to underline that fact.)

First up, chronologically -- and also in my level of personal interest -- is the new novel for young readers by Daniel Pinkwater, Adventures of a Dwergish Girl, which is available on September 25th. I have been in the tank for Pinkwater, one of the finest writers ever for younger readers (and, on occasion, for no-longer-younger-readers) since I myself was a younger reader, to the point of shoehorning an omnibus of his work into the SFBC even when it only fit very loosely there. So I'm very happy to see this. It looks to be roughly contemporary, unlike his last string of books (roughly The Neddiad to Bushman Lives!, most of which were loosely related and set in a Pinkwaterian version of '50s America), and it's Middle Grade rather than Young Adult, for those who care about those minutia. It will probably be the next thing I read. Pinkwater is unique and wonderful and I hope he lives a million years and has a new novel every one of them.

Then there's Kitty's Mix-Tape, which concludes Carrie Vaughn's long-running Kitty Norville urban fantasy series. (It's so long-running that I did an omnibus of the first books at the SFBC, and I haven't worked there in well over a decade.) I say "concludes," since that's how the publisher puts it, but it's actually a collection of the related short stories: fifteen of them, originally published over the past decade or new to this collection (in one case). I'd like to read this, but I'm a good six books behind on the series -- I even have four of those books stacked up, patiently waiting for me -- so I think it has to get in line. This one is coming on October 16th.

Nucleation is the first novel by Kimberly Unger, who makes VR games as a day-job. It looks to be a hard SF novel about first contact gone wrong, about a VR-enabled space-mining operator. (Two big points for avoiding monkeys in cans and having what should be a solid economic reason for space stuff!) I don't know if the book goes more VR, more alien, or more space-y from there, but any of those directions would be interesting. Nucleation is available November 13.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Quote of the Week: Casting for Steelies

Steelhead are elusive, sometimes not numerous, and largely seasonal. They seem to prefer the hardest-to-reach parts of this fast, rock-cluttered, slippery, rapid-filled, generally unhelpful river. On the banks, you must watch for rattlesnakes. Fishing from a boat is not allowed. You wade deeper than you want and then you cast, over and over. You catch mostly nothing. Casting for steelhead is like calling God on the telephone, and it rings and rings and rings, hundreds of rings, a thousand rings, and you listen to each ring as if an  answer might come at any moment, but no answer comes, and no answer comes, and then on the 1,001st ring, or the 1,047th ring, God loses his patience and picks up the phone and yells "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU CALLING ME FOR?" in a voice the size of the canyon. You would fall to your knees if you weren't chest-deep in water and afraid that the rocketing, leaping creature you have somehow tied into will get away.
 - Ian Frazier, "The One That Got Away," in Hogs Wild, pp.32-33

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Manfried Saves the Day by Caitlin Major & Kelly Bastow

OK, first of all I probably should say that I'm not a "cat person." There is one in my house, and I guess I tolerate cats more than I would dogs (slobbery little monsters), but I'm not all that fond of dumb animals in general.

So I am in retrospect not the right reader for Manfried Saves the Day, a graphic novel by Caitlin Major (writer and colorist, copyright owner) and Kelly Bastow (artist) about a world where...(breathless) Get this! Anthropomorphic cats have a whole society just like our own! And they keep cute little naked "men" as pets! "Men" are just like cats! (Except they only come in one gender, and that's the gender that the creators are not, curiously.)

This is a sequel to Manfried the Man, which I have not read. The general rule is that the first book is better, and I have no reason to doubt that would be the case here, too. Maybe that book was more random-gag focused, or had a less cliched story. Anyway, if you like the idea of talking cats keeping tiny nonverbal humans as pets, try the first book.

Saves the Day has a plot so cliched that I kept expecting it to be subverted -- literally, every page I was thinking up other ways for it to go, and anticipating which of the twists Major would decide to take -- but I'm here to tell you that it ends up going exactly the way it looks like it will, roaring straight through all of the signposted events like a movie for particularly dull children before ending in a way Scooby-Doo would have sent back to the drawing board for a touch more nuance.

You see, there is a man shelter. And there is a mean landlord who wants to get rid of the man shelter to do mean-landlord things to it. And there is our hero, Steve, who has a demanding job and a girlfriend who is somehow even more demanding in ways that the creators don't seem to realize are not fair at all to Steve. That girlfriend, Henrietta, runs the man shelter, and is Ahab-level obsessive about it, though again Major is on Henrietta's side. And, inevitably, the only way to save the man shelter will be to win the annual Man Show, against (obviously) the highly-trained men of the mean landlord, who additionally will cheat in really obvious ways.

Can the scruffy underdogs beat the privileged jerks? [1] What do you think?

Since the actual plot of Saves the Day is annoying, predictable in its every straightforward second, and relies on Henrietta putting pressure on Steve in ways no one should tolerate, any pleasures of this book will rely on how much the reader enjoys seeing a little man-creature doing "adorable" cat behaviors.

See my first paragraph for context.

I did not enjoy this book. I think I only finished it because I did think Major couldn't possibly be writing the completely straight version of this story (and was wrong about that) and because it's short with lots of bright pretty pictures on every page. I do not recommend it for anyone with reading tastes anywhere near mine.

[1] ObMeatballsReference: It Just Doesn't Matter! It Just Doesn't Matter!

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Hogs Wild by Ian Frazier

A couple of years ago, I introduced a different Ian Frazier book in a way I don't think I could top if I tried. So, let me quote myself:

Ian Frazier is a long-time New Yorker writer, and one of the few who straddles the line between the two kinds of writing they're known best for: serious, boots-on-the-ground reportage full of checked facts and quotes, on the one hand, and whimsical, throw-these-two-odd-facts-together-at-high-speed humor pieces.
Hogs Wild is from the serious side of Frazier; it's a collection of reported pieces from various magazines -- but probably mostly The New Yorker, where he's on staff -- from roughly the decade-and-a-half before its 2016 publication.

It's a miscellany, obviously: almost two dozen stories of various lengths, from some short enough to have been "Shouts & Murmurs" up to what look like feature articles for Outside. Frazier is a get-out-and-look-at-that-thing kind of writer, so most of these are about him going somewhere to investigate something. But some trips are a drive to Staten Island from Montclair, New Jersey (where he lives) and some are longer expeditions to spend time chasing feral hogs in Georgia or fly-fishing on the Deschutes River. Frazier mixes up the lengths and topics; Hogs Wild has no obvious organizing structure, but flows like a good record album, one piece rhyming with or extending the one before it.

Frazier is an excellent writer of the quiet, unflashy school -- you'll rarely catch him trying to show off. (Though he can do it, and do it well.) He's interesting and chooses topics that are interesting to begin with. He's deeply concerned about the natural world, and human-created changes to that world, but comes at that concern from an outdoorsman's viewpoint rather than an apocalyptician's.

And Hogs Wild is a diverse collection of his mature, recent work. It's a great book for people who want to read about true things in a real world.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Glenn Ganges in: The River at Night by Kevin Huizenga

I always feel compelled to begin by stating for the record that Glenn Ganges is not Kevin Huizenga. Of course, he's not Ganges the same way Sal Paradise is not Jack Kerouac -- the old fictional yes-but-no-but-yes two-step.

Ganges has been a main character in most of Huizenga's books I'm aware of: Gloriana and The Wild Kingdom and Curses. No wait. I don't mean "main." I mean "viewpoint."

That may sound like a nitpick. Describing the stories of Kevin Huizenga will lead to a lot of nitpicks, and descriptions of nitpicks, though -- it's inherent in the territory. Glenn Ganges is a man living in a secondary American city (maybe St. Louis, where Huizenga used to live, or Minneapolis, where he does live now), married to Wendy (I can't find any references online to Huizenga's personal life, and won't speculate), and working some kind of tech-adjacent office job (again, I don't know what Huizenga does to pay his mortgage and put food on the table, though a graphic novel every few years probably isn't it).

But the reader gets the sense that Ganges is mentally an avatar for Huizenga. Huizenga's comics are about thoughts more than actions, ruminations more than activity, knowledge more than thrills. It's not quite true that his comics all take place in Ganges' head, but that's not a bad simplification.

The River at Night, similarly, is not the story of one night when Glenn just couldn't fall asleep. That's a framework for much of the book, true, but it ranges more widely than that -- even leaving out the geological time and personal history and pure formalist cartooning that comes up during that one long, restless night.

A book like this relies heavily on two things: its creator's visual inventiveness and intellectual curiosity. Huizenga has both in industrial quantities, seemingly inexhaustible supplies of startling imagery and complex thoughts, and he rolls them out in waves throughout River at Night, interspersing formalist comics experiments of two muating forms fighting (or whatever) in a video-game space with flashbacks to mundane life and long scenes of Ganges lying in bed thinking or wandering his house ruminating.

Huizenga's art is on the cartoony side, with dot eyes and simplified limbs for his people, and he uses a cool night-blue palette for most of this book, with only a few sunset- or sunrise-desaturated pinks at appropriate moments. That visual simplification -- or concentration, perhaps -- lets him focus on the ideas and their visual representations; he doesn't need to draw every line in Ganges's hair when a calendar is exploding into deep time.

There is no real story to The River at Night. I'm not going to tell you "what happens" -- that's not the kind of book this is. It's a dizzying, mesmerizing, deeply specific meditation on life and time and purpose and meaning. It's both accessible in a way I didn't always find Huizenga's earlier work -- leading into the deep thoughts in measured steps, looping in and out of obsessions to illuminate them from multiple angles -- and thrilling in its audacious energy. I can't guarantee it will make you think about things differently...but if a book like River at Night can't make you think, I don't know what can.