Friday, January 29, 2021

Quote of the Week: Honesty

One temporary badge and a dull fantasy of her employment history committed to the application form later, "Kate Gallowglass" found herself sitting on a leatherette chair before the head of Employee Resources. He was a blue-eyed aristocrat in a bespoke suit and Royal Harlindon regimental tie who, she had to admit, couldn't have looked more desirable if he were in shackles and shorts. After a quick glance at her application he said, "Why do you want to work here, Ms. Gallowglass?"

"Money," Cat said.

"Excuse me?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. I misspoke myself. I meant to say that this would be a fabulous opportunity for me to express my talents, unleash my inner potential, spread my wings, drink from the fountain of wisdom, kneel before the lingam of the numinous, learn humility and discipline from the best and wisest, be the change that I want to see, and become something more than anything I could ever possibly be. Unfortunately, at this present time, what with food and rent and such, I require a salary. But rest assured, if I were ever to find myself as wealthy as you obviously are, I'd definitely be taking this job, with its utter lack of career potential and a management culture that is obviously both demanding and condescending, for no money at all. That's how highly I regard the position of File Clerk I. It's something of a dream job for me."

The interviewer stared at Cat. "Was that meant to be amusing?"

"If it were, I am almost certain you would have noticed."

 - Michael Swanwick, The Iron Dragon's Mother, p.191 

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Giant Days: Vols. 8-10 by Allison, Sarin, and Cogar (with Madrigal)

Giant Days ended a little more than a year ago, which eventually spurred me to stop waiting for the probably-never-coming fourth hardcover collection and actually read the back half of the story in the paperbacks that do exist. So, once again, as is inevitable with comics, I'm writing about a huge chunk of middle today.

It's not inevitable that I do it eighteen months late -- Vol. 10 came out in June of 2019 -- but I am hoping to get to the end in the next few months, if that matters.

Anyway: this is the middle. Esther and Susan and Daisy met in the first issue of Giant Days, back in 2015, as they started their studies at the fictional Sheffield University, somewhere in the UK. (My guess is that "somewhere" would be Sheffield, but writer John Allison can be tricky.) Their stories are funny but grounded -- Giant Days is pitched somewhere between slice-of-life and sitcom-wacky, or maybe wanders through both of those territories, depending on the story and the circumstances. But these are real people depicted mostly realistically. Most of the series was drawn by Max Sarin, and colored by Whitney Cogar. (Julia Madrigal drew two issues in the middle of this particular batch, and the first six were drawn by Lissa Treiman. Oh, and Liz Fleming was the inker over Sarin's pencils for roughly the second year.)

My posts on the earlier stories: onetwothree, and fourNot on the Test 1 & 2Not on the Test 3Extra Credit, and seven.

And so today I have twelve issues of comics, originally published between August 2017 and July 2018 and then collected as Volume Eight and Volume Nine and Volume Ten. (Do I need to tell you that each volume collects four issues? I hope you can do simple arithmetic.)

This batch of stories covers the end of their second year -- when the three women lived together in one house, which arrangement is breaking up in various complicated ways in Volume 8 -- and the beginning of their third and final year at Sheffield. (Giant Days is published out of the US, but, like most things Allisonian, it presents a distinctively British view of the world and never goes out of its way to soften or explain that. I imagine there were a lot of American readers confused why everyone at Sheffield is only there for three years.)

Some of the volumes focus mostly on the women's academic careers, some on other activities, but most of them -- and these three fall into that -- are mostly about their interpersonal relationships: with each other, with their chosen boy- and girl-friends, with housemates often horrible and sometimes just overwhelming. You know: living with other people, having mostly-adult relationships with other people -- the kind of thing most of us really learn to do when we're in college and off on our own for the first time. (Note that "being in college" and "off on our own for the first time" are separate things that are often encountered together, but not necessarily. They are here.)

The tenth volume also sees the world of work looming, at least for Esther and Daisy. (Susan is pre-med, so she has several more years of school ahead of her.) And that presents new concerns and complications, in ways that may be familiar to readers of Allison's other stories. (His main characters tend to be young and fiery, and as they age and settle down, they turn into background characters in the next story.)

This is the point of Giant Days where the end comes in view, in just the same way that the start of the last year of college prefigures the end of that year (and of college in general). So there's a bit of bittersweet starting to come into the emotional mix here -- this is a time of life, and those never last forever. But endings are what make stories: without an ending, all you have is random moments. (Insert your favorite drive-by superhero-comics insult here.) So I'm looking forward to the ending: Allison is good at endings; he's done a lot of them. And there's still four more books of stories for me to read.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Iron Dragon's Mother by Michael Swanwick

Faerie is a dark mirror. Every vision of faerie, from every writer, is a twist or inversion or direct translation of something that writer wants to explore. Time, aristocracy, cruelty, connection, bargains, mortality, morality.

Michael Swanwick's faerie hews much closer to the "real world" than most writers' visions. Over twenty-five years and three novels, he's returned to an industrialized, aristocratic, deeply corrupt version of our world, ruled by fear and velvet-gloved iron fists and the straitjacket of social structures and expectations. His faerielands are not mapped, but their geography seems to be very close to our own. The people who live there are diverse, made up of the mythic creatures of a hundred lands -- but most of them are wage-slaves, trapped in the bottom rungs of a punishing and constricting society. And there's a core militarism that will be familiar to all Americans -- and many others -- embodied in the central image of the titles of all three novels.

Dragons. Dragons as once-living weapons. Fighter planes as dragons as fighter planes. Transformed into machines that are still dragons, unable to move or act on their own. Inherently cruel and destructive. Accepting the most horrible bondage imaginable for their kind just to have the opportunity to rage and burn and kill, even if that opportunity is tightly bounded and utterly controlled by their half-fae pilots.

Swanwick introduced that dark faerie in 1993's The Iron Dragon's Daughter, about a changeling trapped in that world and caught up in a long plot by one of those nihilistic dragons to destroy it all. He returned a decade and a half later in a series of linked novellas, collected as The Dragons of Babel, about another young person caught up in the schemes of a dragon. And the third book was The Iron Dragon's Mother, from 2019.

It opens in our world. A woman named Helen V. is dying, slowly, in some facility. She was powerful -- some kind of Hollywood producer -- and is still acerbic and cutting and clear-headed, but is now powerless and weak and entirely at the mercy of her distracted, young nurses who understand nothing about her and can't engage with her intellectually. She knows she is dying. She has a plan, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, to leap forth at the moment of her death, break off the wheel of rebirth, and find...something else.

Maybe that works. Maybe something else happens. But she ends up in the back of the mind of Caitlin of House Sans Merci, one of the first squadron of female dragon pilots, as Caitlin and the rest return from a flight over the human world, harvesting children's souls for industrial changelings. Caitlin is half-human, as all dragon pilots must be: they have to touch cold iron to fly, and no full-blood fae can do that.

Caitlin's life has gone reasonably well: her mother (well, the wife of her father -- there was clearly a human female somewhere in the mix, but that is deeply obscure for much of the book) is cruel and distant and her father merely distant, which is about as good as it gets for aristocratic fae families. Her older brother Fingolfinrhod is reasonably friendly, and will inherit before long. She has succeeded at the first step in what should be an illustrious and respected career. She is part of a team and accepted.

It all goes to hell soon after she's called home to see her dying father. Her father does die. Something more puzzling happens to her brother. And, soon after her return to the air base, she's arrested on trumped-up but airtight charges. It's clear she's on the fast track to immediate execution, and no protests of innocence -- she is, of course, entirely innocent -- can possibly help.

So she blows it all up and goes on the run. Looking to get away, to find her brother, to prove the case against her is false, to get back what she lost.

For a long time she doesn't realize she can never get it back, even as everyone she meets tells her that, bluntly. She travels across this dark faerie mirror, through something like a crueler, nastier EU, one step ahead of pursuers and usually several steps behind what she eventually learns is a Conspiracy. (With a capital C and a home office and a large clerical staff.)

Helen is in her head the whole time. Usually quiet -- the reader can almost forget Helen is there for chapters at a time. But Caitlin will only make it through with Helen's help, and the end of the story is as much Helen's as it is Caitlin's.

Swanwick's prose is as brilliant and precise as always: he's one of our finest writers, and this series brings out the best in his work. The episodic structure also suits his strengths, as a master of short fiction. Each moment in Caitlin's journey propels her a little farther and makes her understand a little more about the true shape of her world and how she can live in it.

This is fantasy at the top of its register: not a secondary world disconnected from our own, but that direct, immediate mirror. Swanwick has always moved backwards and forwards from SF to Fantasy, bringing the same concerns to both and mixing their tropes to tell his current story. Iron Dragon's Mother is another triumph in that tradition: a novel about death and mortality and inevitability and wisdom and corruption and, in the end, about letting go.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Threesome by Lawrence Block as Jill Emerson

Lots of writers have written under pseudonyms, particularly when working in new genres (Robert Galbraith) or trying something new in the same one (Richard Bachman, Richard Stark). And pretty much everyone wrote smutty books under pseudonyms, for the twenty or so years that "smutty books" were a genre in North America -- who would want their own names on that crap?

But, then, who would think people would be still reading "that crap" forty years later, and trying to find all of the books by a particular author or pseudonym?

So the writers that did write smutty books, if they were still around a few decades later, still writing whatever else they turned to writing, and not completely turned to hatred of their old smut, tended to bring it all back, under their own names, because at least some of their fans were interested in those books. (Whether the interest was due to the author, due to it being smut, due to the age, due to the particular kind of smut, or some combination thereof was much more individual.)

Most of them were not precious about that republication. This is stuff they wrote quickly, generally when quite young, for a very specific market. But some pseudonyms feel more "real" to their authors than others. And so when Lawrence Block came to bring back his old smutty books -- and he had a lot of them, close to fifty under names like Sheldon Lord, Jill Emerson, and Andrew Shaw -- most of them were just republished as by Block.

But the books originally credited to Jill Emerson kept that byline, with Block added in. Even odder, a new book "by" Jill Emerson, Getting Off, appeared in 2011, in the middle of that burst of republication. And Block has said that Emerson was something of an alter ego -- a female persona that he saw in some ways distinct from his other, male, writing voices. So it's a little odd, but it does make sense -- writers create new people in their heads for a living, after all, and once in a while those people will write their own books.

I haven't read most of Block's old smutty books -- I vaguely intend to, but I vaguely intend to read a lot of things, and I don't own any of the Lord or Shaw books, which makes them pretty low on the pile. I did track down and read Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, the kiss-off to the smut-book business published under Block's name in the early '70s. And I did read Getting Off. I'm more interested in the Emerson books, maybe because they seem to still be a part of a current "career" and maybe because Block sees them as something distinct. Anyway, Threesome looked like the most "writerly" of the old Emerson books -- it's the story of what we now call a "stable triad," written round-robin by all three parties in their own voices -- so that was my next Emerson book.

The three are cartoonist Harry Kapp, his wife Priscilla (Pris) Kapp, and Pris's old college roommate Rhoda Muir. It's the late '60s, Harry is in his mid-thirties while the two women are a year or two shy of the big three-oh. Harry and Pris live in a house out in the woods in western Massachusetts -- close enough for Harry to get to NYC once a week to sell cartoons, far enough away to be quiet and, presumably, cheap. Pris and Rhoda were lovers in college, and Harry knows this, from the usual who-else-have-you-fucked-in-your-life pillow talk with his wife.

The curtain comes up with Rhoda typing -- the whole book is very much typed by the characters, and they comment on each other's revelations and opinions in what they say is their main current method of feedback -- as she explains how they came to start on the project of the book. (They saw that Naked Came the Stranger was a huge bestseller, and thought they could do at least as well with just three of them and a "true" story.)

The story itself is unsurprising and fairly generic: Rhoda was fleeing a bad Las Vegas divorce, came to stray with Pris for rest, and ended up sleeping with both Harry and Pris within a couple of days. There are some complications, and some other sex, both before and after the threesome got established -- got to keep things spicy! -- but that's basically it. They all got together, they started fucking, they're basically happy as the book ends.

It's not a whole lot of plot, even for a short novel, but it was enough for a paperback where the sex was the main draw, and shocking sex (which threesomes were, I guess) was even better. I am eliding some actual plot points here, of course -- "some complications" in the last paragraph basically yadda-yaddas the entire story, and much of the story takes place during the writing of the chapters, which is a nice device -- but it was always thin, and it's part of a genre of thin stories.

Block doesn't entirely give them completely different voices, though they are somewhat distinct in their tics and concerns. Again, he probably wrote this in a month to hit a publishing slot. No one ever expected fine literature from smut books. The sex is very much in a '60s context, and I thought it was clear the whole thing was written by a man, despite the "Jill Emerson" name on it originally. (For one example, the two women have a moment where they declare, semi-randomly, that of course their having sex together is sexy for Harry to contemplate or watch, but two men having sex together could never, ever be sexy for women. That's a man talking in the 1960s to an audience of other 1960s men.)

Threesome is modern enough that you could draw a through-line from it to newer books, but dated enough that it clearly takes place in a different world. I find books like that can be really interesting, as if they're circling some historical event horizon: still accessible but getting further and further away. It's not a major book in any way, but it's fun and professionally written and sexy in the ways it wants to be, so I'd say it's still a success, fifty years later.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/23/21

This week, all of the books came in the mail, and they were all things I bought. I got some money out of the couch cushions from That Hegemonic Internet Retailer (back in the fat days of this blog, I'd get a few affiliate bucks every month, but now it only hits their threshold every two years, if that), and spent that on these things:

Prosper's Demon by K.J. Parker -- I think we all know by now that Parker is the same writer as Tom Holt, but it was secret for a long time. (I liked the rumors that Parker was female, one strand of which actually attached to Holt's wife, but they did not turn out to be true.) The Holt books have been mostly humorous fantasy -- I think his first two, way back, were myth-flavored fantasy of a different sort -- but the Parker books are darker fantasy. I really liked the Scavenger trilogy, which I bought for the SFBC early in Parker's career, but haven't read much of his work since. (I do have two Parker novels on the shelf, along with so much else.) This one is a novella and it looks to be strongly driven by voice, so I think I can get to it much faster. No promises, though.

Hunting Buffalo with Bent Nails is a random nonfiction collection written and published by Lawrence Block, best-known for writing mysteries and thrillers. As his intro explains it, he assembled one book of all of his writings about crime fiction, and another book of all of his writings about philately (we all have our hobbies) and then this book was every else he had left over. That sounds sufficiently random for me -- a whole bunch of short pieces by a writer I like on things that are neither stamps nor writing.

Giant Days, Vol. 12 by John Allison, Max Sarin and Whitney Cogar -- My library system has all of the Giant Days books...except this one. They have 1-6, which I didn't need. They have 7-10, which I've already requested, received, and read. They have 11 and 13 and 14, which I'll be asking for soon. But they did not have this one, because libraries -- like so many things in the USA, to its detriment -- are organized and run entirely at the lowest possible governmental level, with the barest minimum of oversight and planning, so that no one actually ever keeps track of things like that across what should be a unified, useful system.

(On the other hand, that messy uncontrolled system is getting me seven books of Giant Days that I don't have to buy myself. It's not bad, it's just another example of ways Americans refuse to work together whenever given an option, because something something socialism.)

Trese, Vol. 1: Murder on Balete Drive by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo -- I read and reviewed this, a decade ago, and loved it then. It's now actually generally available on my side of the Pacific, so I'm going to read it again -- and, I hope, buy and read the rest of the series as they're all republished by US-based Ablaze. It's the first in an urban fantasy series of graphic novels, about Alexandra Trese, a paranormal investigator in Manila. The art is dark and lush and enveloping, and the world is equally so: this is an urban fantasy set in a specific place, using Filipino myth and folklore to tell its stories in a rich and resonant way. (So much urban fantasy is a thin soup of fifth-hand random European tropes -- all the same werewolves and vampires and maybe a banshee for spice.)

Also, this is being turned into a TV series for Netflix, so read it now and you can be one of the annoying hipsters once everyone else loves it.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Quote of the Week: Relationships

Arada and Overse were back to getting along after spending time together in an unused bunkroom while we were traveling to the dock. I hadn't bothered to monitor them on ART's cameras or try to slip a drone in; the chances that they were having sex and/or a relationship discussion (either of which I would prefer to stab myself in the face than see) were far higher than the chance that they were saying anything I needed to know about.
(I mean, they might have been plotting against me, but, you know, probably not.)
 - Martha Wells, Network Effect, p.230

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Frogcatchers by Jeff Lemire

Jeff Lemire is at least two different comics creators -- metaphorically if not in reality. (Maybe in reality, too, since otherwise I wonder how he finds time to sleep.)

There's the Big Two Lemire, who writes punch-em-up comics for other people to draw. He's pretty well regarded for that, but I wandered off from the Big Two around the beginning of this century, so I have no personal experience with that side of his work.

The original Jeff Lemire, though, who started his career with the Xeric-winning Lost Dogs and broke out soon afterward with the three books that make up Essex County, was and is a indy-graphic-novel guy, who makes book-length stories all by himself and shoves them out into the world.

That Jeff Lemire also works in comics issues, sometimes -- yesterday I wrote about the third volume of  Royal City, which is indy-Lemire but originally a fourteen issue series from Image -- but what he mostly does is make stories about Canadian blue-collar men (sometimes women) with various problems, usually at a moment when they're being beaten by life more than usual.

(And the Schroedinger Lemire is the one in the middle: who writes books that usually come out as issues, who works with other artists, but doesn't do superhero stuff. Think Descender and Plutona; books like that. Again, it makes me wonder when the man sleeps.)

Frogcatchers is very much in indy-Lemire mode, following on previous solo books like The Nobody, The Underwater Welder, Trillium, and Roughneck. Lemire draws it very loosely, like his earliest work, giving this atmospheric, surrealistic story a jolt of immediacy and energy. It feels like he drew it almost as quickly as you can read it: that's obviously not true (there's a lot of hidden work in a comics page), but it gives a story with few characters and big transcendent themes a a strong sense of velocity and vector.

It opens with a boy catching frogs under an overpass, somewhere. Then a man wakes up in a hotel bed -- maybe the same man, dreaming of his youth? But he soon finds the hotel is locked and empty, except for that boy -- who still looks a lot like him -- and the boy tells him the story of this world: they're trying to escape the hotel, to get away from The Frog King, who lives in a locked room across from where the man woke up. A room the man has a key to, in fact -- the only key to any of the rooms in this hotel. Monstrous frog-like Agents of the King chase them -- the boy is right, at least in some way.

But the man may be right about other things. And escape might not be what it seems.

Frogcatchers is deeply metaphorical, obviously. I'm not going to spoil the metaphor here: it's a good one, though the focus on frogs is quirky and specific. (I suspect Lemire himself caught frogs as a kid; I never did or even thought of it as a thing people did in the modern world.) I think this is a book most resonant for those of us in middle age or later: you need to have done things to look back on (with regret, or nostalgia, or whatever) to get the most out of it. Maybe not catching frogs, but something. We all have something.

If it resonates for you, if there something in your past or present that connects to Lemire's metaphor -- and there probably will be -- this is a fine, resonant, deep book about the meanings of a life and the decisions we all make and regret.

The thing about frogs is that they're slippery: hard to catch, hard to keep. And what do you do after you catch them: what happens next?

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Royal City, Vol. 3: We All Float On by Jeff Lemire

Somehow I'm over two years late on this Jeff Lemire comic, despite reading the first two (see my posts on volumes one and two) right when they came out and liking the series a lot. What can I say? There are too many good books in the world, and keeping up with them all can sometimes be challenging. But I made it to the end eventually.

Royal City is a family story, and Vol. 3: We All Float On is where it all comes together. The first volume brought brother Patrick back to town, to join his siblings Richie and Tara and parents Patti and Peter -- and, most importantly, brother Tommy, who died in 1993 but has been haunting the entire family, in very different ways, ever since. The second volume went back to '93 to show the week of Tommy's death, and now the conclusion brings in a new, unexpected family member and brings everything to the final crisis.

(No, not the usual comics kind of Final Crisis. The real people living in a real world -- well, mostly real, since they're all seeing Dead Tommy all the time -- kind of crisis, where all of the problems peak at once.)

This is an ending, so I don't want to talk much about the plot -- but I will say that it does all end, and it does end well. Lemire is, as always, good at stories about people, especially damaged people, and the Pike family are all damaged in different ways. It does all center on Tommy, as it must, even though he has been dead for over twenty years.

I see that Royal City is now available as a single spiffy hardcover, and that's probably the best way to read this going forward -- it is a single story that happened to be published as individual comics issues and then three trade paperbacks for market reasons, but it would work best as a single book, since it tells a single story.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

A Pound of Paper by John Baxter

I think I owned this book before the flood, and didn't read it. (My personal flood, in 2011, I mean, not the Biblical one. I'm pretty sure I didn't own any books before the Biblical flood.) The US cover is familiar, once I googled it to start preparing to write this post -- what I read, somewhat appropriately for a book about books, was the UK first edition.

As far as I can tell, I never read that first copy of A Pound of Paper: the words here, and the story of John Baxter's life told in those words, were new to me. So it's another one of those odd fragments of a reading life: the book that's partly familiar and partly unfamiliar, and you can't quite remember why. Sometimes those are books you almost read -- poked through in a store, glanced at during a boring party. Some are just books you heard about a lot -- read a few reviews and got enough knowledge that ten years later it feels like you forgot the rest. And some are like this: books you never did read, but had around for a while and probably picked up several times.

A Pound of Paper is somewhere between a general memoir of Baxter's life and an examination of the world of bookselling and his life in that world in the '60s through the '90s. It was published in 2002, and was Baxter's first foray into memoir, though it was followed not long after by the more specific We'll Always Have Paris, largely about how he married a Frenchwoman in midlife and moved to Paris. (That story, in miniature, is told here, with the focus mostly on how French bookdealers, like all French shopkeepers, are more like friendly neighbors than commerce-driven capitalists, and that causes friction with folks used to the norms of the Anglosphere.)

This book meanders quite a bit -- it's organized more or less chronologically, but Baxter backtracks a lot and drops what seem to be major threads (like the whole I-bought-and-sold-books thing) for entire chapters at a time. For example, he opens with three chapters talking about bookselling, booksellers, and the world of first editions -- the profitable end of bookselling, then as always. But that then drops away for a more normal autobiography of his childhood for the next few chapters -- with notes on the books he read, some of which he notes he still owns -- and how he entered the literary world in general. He seems to want this to be the Sam Eagle of autobiographies, a salute to everything in his life but mostly bookselling.

He was born in Australia in 1939, grew up largely in a town way out in the middle of nowhere, with stints in Sydney before and after that. He left school in his mid-teens to work on the railroad -- apparently still a thing one could do in Australia in the '50s -- and meandered into literary society through Australian SF clubs.

(I'm amused that Baxter was a SF writer and anthologist -- had a novel published by Ace in the '60s and everything -- but I didn't discover his work through that connection, but because I randomly picked up I think, this book, and then slightly later read We'll Always Have Paris because it was partially about the grande horizontales of his new hometown. And from there I wandered over to his "encyclopedia of modern sex" Carnal Knowledge and a biography of J.G. Ballard called The Inner Man.)

From there, Pound of Paper stints on Baxter's literary career -- Wikipedia lists a bunch of publications in the '60s and '70s, novels and books about film, but Baxter doesn't mention any of them -- to talk about buying books instead of writing them. Again, it's pretty meandering, much like Baxter's life: he moved to London in the late '50s (I think), and there became the kind of guy who finds rare-ish books and resells them, which led to being something like a partner of the bookseller Martin Stone -- Baxter talks about deals rather than business arrangements, and I think that was the level of everything. He never had a storefront or a business entity; he just found books, collected books, and sometimes sold books, either individually or in job lots. From London, he moved to Los Angeles for a decade or two, when his career was mostly writing books about film, and then moved on to Paris for the aforementioned Parisian.

Baxter has not organized all of this terribly well, but he tells it well. It feels like a loose bag of party pieces -- "Have I told you about how I came to London and met Martin? Well, there's a tale..." -- spruced up and put into a plausible order than something actually conceived as a book-length manuscript to begin with. I've read better books about bookselling, certainly, but this is a fun and interesting one, and the bookselling stuff is mixed in with the general story of a life spent in the literary world, which is a nice combination. 

Monday, January 18, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/16/21

This week I have two books to mention: one that came in the traditional way (in the mail, from the company that published it), and one that I got in a completely new way.

In a park near my house is a Little Library -- a box with a glass door on a post with a bunch of books jammed into it. The idea is to take books or leave them, as you can. It's maintained by the local Girl Scouts, or at least was built and installed by them -- I'm not sure how much maintenance is necessary. I've dropped books off there a few times: mostly YA graphic novels and similarly inoffensive stuff, since it's in a public park very near the play equipment.

On a way last weekend, I dropped off three books -- it was tough to fit them in; the box was pretty full -- and something caught my eye. So I ended up, for the first time, taking something away.

But first, the publicity book!

Clifford the Big Red Dog: The Movie Graphic Novel is exactly what it says it is: a comics adaptation of the mostly-live-action movie about the gigantic red dog beloved from the series of books by Norman Bridwell and (probably much more, these days) the animated series adapted from those books. The movie had a screenplay by Jay Scherick, David Ronn and Blaise Hemingway, from a story by Justin Malen and Ellen Rapoport, and Georgia Ball adapted that into comics for Chi Ngo to draw. Seven writers (counting Bridwell, which I definitely do) is an awful lot for a story about a big lovable dog, but that's Hollywood for you.

Apparently, Clifford's growth spurt this time is "magical" and the source of hang-wringing villainy, because this is a movie and they can't just rely on Bridwell's original "well, he's just a really big dog, OK?" premise. But the kid is still named Emily Elizabeth, she still loves her dog, and Clifford looks to still have the same personality as ever, so I think I can allow that.

My kids are well past the Clifford years, but I read the Bridwell books as a kid and read them to my sons early this century, so I do have plenty of affection for the character. So I might just have to see what Scherick and Ronn and Hemingway and Malen and Rapoport have done to him, and if Ball was able to get that back to a decent story. (My sympathies are always on the side of the ink-slingers on paper, not the screenwriters.)

This book went on sale September 7th; I have no idea why I got it so late...or, indeed, why I got it at all. But, hey, free books! I am definitely not complaining.

And the book I plucked from a Little Library in bucolic Hirschfield Park in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey was a UK edition of Ray Davies' book of short stories, Waterloo Sunset. Davies is of course the singer and frontman of the Kinks -- or was, when the Kinks were an active band, which they don't seem to be these days -- and "Waterloo Sunset" is one of the Kinks' most famous songs. This book seems to be a linked collection, with some or all of the stories based (loosely? directly?) on Davies' songs -- titles include "Art Lover," "Celluloid Heroes," Mr Pleasant," "Afternoon Tea," and "Rock and Roll Fantasy."

I say "linked" since there seems to be a Davies-esque character, the aging popstar Les Mulligan, threaded throughout the book, though I'm not sure if he's telling the stories or experiencing them. I guess I'll find out when I read it, huh?

This was not Davies' first foray into long-form prose (and of course he wrote a hell of a lot of really good songs for thirty-plus years) -- he wrote a weird, baroque memoir called X-Ray in the mid-90s, a few years before this collection, and a second (seemingly more straightforward) memoir called Americana a few years later. I've read X-Ray and haven't gotten to Americana yet.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Quote of the Week: Just So

There comes a time in a man's life when he realises stories are lies. Things do not end neatly. The enforced narratives a human impinges on the chaotic mess that is life become empty labels, like the dried husks of corn such as are thrown down in the summer months from the adaptoplant dwellings, to litter the streets below.

 - Lavie Tidhar, Central Station, pp.162-163

Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Brontes: Infernal Angria by Craig Hurd-McKenney and Rick Geary

In our timeline, the Bronte siblings created several fictional worlds -- they started with Glass Town, which grew (mostly from Charlotte and Branwell) into the somewhat separate Angria, while younger siblings Emily and Anne invented the entirely separate land of Gondal. All of those were explicitly set in odd, "exotic" corners of the real world they were familiar with, and peopled with various lords and adventurers and such. And, of course, the three sisters all published novels set in the real England of their day, all beginning with debuts in 1847.

The Brontes: Infernal Angria simplifies this, as fiction often does. There is one land: Angria. It is real, somewhere other than Earth, and accessed, wainscot-style, from the playroom of their childhood house in Haworth. Time works differently there; visitors from England can enter Angria, have any number of adventures, and return at the moment they left...but time can also pass in Angria between visits. (If the reader suspects this is entirely for storytelling convenience, he can hardly be blamed.)

Craig Hurd-Kenney makes the origin of Angria specifically in the children's isolation and grief, starting in 1825 when their two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died. (And a few years after their mother also died.) But he actually begins this graphic novel with a prologue set in 1861, years after all four of the younger Bronte siblings were dead, in which Charlotte's widower attends the death of her father, Patrick, and then destroys all references to Angria in the house. This seems to be setting up a later conflict, but it really doesn't pay off in the current version of Infernal Angria -- I suspect Hurd-McKenney originally had a much longer, more dramatic story in mind, and the current 90-page version is what he and artist Rick Geary were able to actually get done in the twenty-ish years they were working on it.

So Infernal Angria is one part secret history -- this is what the Bronte children were really up to -- and one part unfinished drama. We see the Brontes enter Angria and have adventures and interactions there, but it's all fairly thin and quick and melodramatic, as one might expect of plot points based on the stories told by a bunch of nineteen century pre-teens -- it's almost a distraction to the real concerns, back in England, which center on whether going to Angria at all is a good thing. The core tension is between the nature of Angria, that time-stopping power which is health-reviving for English travelers, and their father's religion. Hurd-McKenney is not always clear why these things should be in tension, unless he's implying Angria is an alternative afterlife. (My understanding is that the Brontes' fictional worlds were not pagan, so they should be as close to their god in Angria as in England. Hurd-McKinney, or his characters, seem to have different ideas but don't quite make them clear.)

I think this is Hurd-McKenney trying to construct a plausible secret history based on real history, and not quite succeeding, to my mind. It's also possible that the original conception of a longer, fuller story would have had more room to make that conflict clearer and stronger. But, as it is, it feel like the Brontes, as they each sicken and get near death in turn, make random choices about who they feel about Angria and Heaven without quite saying what those choices are and what the stakes are.

So I can't find Infernal Angria entirely successful. It's interesting, and knotty, and a thoughtful weaving of secret history. but everything didn't quite come together the way I would have liked. I should admit that I came to it as a fan of Rick Geary, the artist, rather than as a Bronte scholar or knowing anything about Hurd-McKenney -- so the fact that I think the pictures are more successful than the framework they support might just be what was to be expected. Either way, it's quirky and specific: fans of the Brontes, of secret history, of 19th century literature in general, and of vague religious conflicts will find things of interest here.

(Note: this book is not available from the usual hegemonic Internet retailer, nor from B&N or IndieBound -- finding it might be a problem. ISBN is 9781532386244, if you want to do some searching.) 

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

House of the Black Spot by Ben Sears

Now, I tagged this book as "You Know, For Kids," but I don't think it was published for kids -- it's from the small comics-focused press Koyama [1] and I think they just do comics in general. But it's appropriate for kids of most ages, and it's a more modern adventure story than many I've seen in comics (see my recent post on another Tintin omnibus). So that's worth flagging.

Of course, on the other hand, I say "more modern" when House of the Black Spot reads an awful lot like a '70s Scooby-Doo episode translated into comics with a new cast. (That's not a complaint: figuring out skullduggery and making things better is a solid plot, and a great one for younger readers.)

This is, as far as I can recall, the first time I've ever seen the comics work of Ben Sears. I got this book because it was inexpensive to begin with and there was a good sale at my "local comics shop." [2] And it seems to be the fourth in the "Double+" series, about a crime-fighting duo, the boy (?) Plus Man and the flying robot Hank -- they have a day-job delivering things (groceries at the beginning of this book, I suspect other things in other books), but clearly also are "nosy kids" when occasion warrants.

Sears' world is mildly SFnal; robots like Hank seem to be a minority group -- there are some of them, but not a lot, and they have families rather than coming from an assembly line somewhere. But otherwise the world is basically "now," or maybe slightly historical, with computers and airplanes but no cellphones. 

Hank has to go back to Gear Town, where he grew up, when his uncle Bill (who raised him) dies. Plus Man goes with him as support, and, at the reading of the will, they're told (along with a motley crew of other family and friends) that Bill was murdered, that his estate (physical) will be sealed until the crime is solved by one of them, and that his estate (financial) will go to the person who solves the crime.

Everyone assumes that the two mean real-estate developers, who were buying land out from under Bill even before his death, are responsible -- but they seem too ineffectual and frankly incapable of murder, and there's also the matter of proving anything. So Plus Man and Hank investigate the house and grounds, digging into papers, finding secret passageways, having long conversations with people friendly and not, and getting captured by what seems to be the ghost of a long-dead evil industrialist -- the usual stuff.

In the end, the crime is solved, and a mask metaphorically pulled off a metaphorical Old Man Jenkins, who curses the Double+ duo for foiling the fiendish plot.

Sears draws this with thin lines outlining rounded, plump objects -- his people have big faces, and other things are softly boxy, with round corners and a sense of cartoon solidity. The coloring tends to the bright for backgrounds but more subdued for figures and scenery; it's a friendly, subtly happy look.

House of the Black Spot was fun: I enjoyed it enough to think about checking out the other Double+ books. I went into it with no real expectations -- the book has no blurb on it, except for a quote from Charles Forsman [3] -- but it is somewhere in a very broad territory between Tintin and the Scooby gang.

[1] Which I think is mostly or entirely one woman named Annie Koyama. And that's pretty impressive, since this book is my first Koyama title and it's well-made and nicely designed.

[2] It was local to my office when I worked in NYC in the mid-90s, and I might have shopped there a couple of times then. It was local to my bus station (the ugly and unpleasant Port Authority) for a subsequent decade, and became my regular shop somewhere in there. And it was still pretty close to Penn Station once I started using trains to get into NYC much of the time. But it's never been "local" in any normal sense of the word.

[3] Which, incidentally, amused me. It's credited to him with "(TEOTFW, I Am Not Okay With This)" afterwards, which is actually the titles of his two major books to date (first is the thing also known as The End of the Fucking World), but looks like a parenthetical comment with some baroque Internet initialism leading it off.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Clyde Fans by Seth

Seth has been telling this story for twenty years now, so you probably already know this, but: Clyde Fans is a business, not a person.

It was a small enterprise, manufacturing and selling fans for home and business, mostly in the smaller cities of Ontario, Canada, flourishing from the late thirties through the early sixties, and then rapidly declining to end in 1981. It was founded by a man named Clyde Matchstick, who does not appear in this book at all. His two sons, Abraham and Simon, are our viewpoints -- first one, then the other, then both, and one and the other once more to end symmetrically. (This is a long book, despite the "picture novella" label on the cover -- nearly five hundred pages of comics, with each of the five chapters pushing a hundred.)

The two brothers never really understood each other, or valued each other. But I've already said they were brothers.

The father is the hole the story circles around. He walked out on his family when they boys were grown but still young -- in their twenties, I think -- and they don't seem to have recovered from that, or from having him as a father before that. But, despite the name, the book is not Clyde's story. His wife -- or ex-wife, maybe, or even widow; they have no idea what happened to him -- has cut his face out of every photo she could find, so Clyde appears in Clyde Fans in dialogue and as a jagged scissor-cut shape, nothing more.

Abraham was the doer: he leapt into the business, first as a salesman for his father and then to run the office after the old man ran away. It looks like he grew it for a while; the late forties and all of the fifties were fat years. But the business model evaporated under him as air-conditioning became cheaper and more available, and Abraham never adjusted to that shift. (He never says "business model" or anything like that concept here, but it's what happened: I've seen it hit several businesses I worked for as well and it is not pretty.) The first chapter here is one long monologue, with Abraham holding forth (to the reader, or to no one) on his theories of selling, the history of the company, and related topics.

Simon was quieter, colder -- vastly less verbal, vastly less personable. He tried to be a salesman only once, with poor results. We don't see what drove him to that, but we do see that failed trip, and the man he became afterward: obsessed with novelty postcards, spending his entire life alone in the Clyde Fans building, caring for his aging mother in his halting, distracted way. His head is full, but it doesn't come easily out of his mouth -- certainly not with other people, though he does have the disconcerting habit of talking to his collection of mostly-racist novelty toys, often in loud and argumentative tones. There possibly was something wrong with Simon, some mental condition he could have been treated for, but that never happened. He is dead before the first section of this book, set in 1997, having died in the 1970s during the company's long slow decline.

So this is a book of contrasts: doer vs. dreamer, outer world vs. inner world, looking forward vs. looking back. As usual, Seth's essential sympathy is towards dreamers, inner worlds, and looking backward, though Simon is a deeply flawed exemplar of all of those things. Abraham was a healthier, better adjusted man -- but that's only a matter of degrees; he's hurt vastly more people in his life, just by living among more people and interacting with them (affairs with housewives all across Ontario, shutting down the manufacturing plant to save the core sales business for a few years).

And, even more, it's a book about memory and time: about how things change, and how it's impossible to hold onto moments of happiness and joy, no matter how much you want to. Maybe also about what trying to hold onto those moments, instead of moving on, will do to someone.

Seth's art changes over the twenty years he took to draw this -- his lines were thin in the first chapter, much like It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, but they grow fatter as the book goes on, and the endpapers and opening art is all in his modern style: solid blocks of black and tone with chunky confident lines defining the spaces and people. The book is long enough that it wasn't really noticeable in the reading, though the transition from frontmatter to chapter one is potentially jarring. (But Seth calls it out in his afterword, which is largely about how the book did take twenty years to complete, and how he'll never do anything like that again.)

Frankly, this is a small, personal story -- five hundred pages does not make it an epic, and it was never meant to be. It is physically a bug-crusher, but that's because of the nature of comics: despite the old saw that a picture equals a thousand words, telling a nuanced, dialogue-driven, thoughtful story about people in comics simply takes more space than it does in prose. If you go into Clyde Fans expecting bigness, you'll be disappointed. But if you know Seth's previous work, you'll be properly calibrated.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/9/20

A bunch of books from the library (which I'd hoped to get to during my vacation) didn't come in until the first week of the year. And that means that I wasn't the only person taking time off and relaxing around the holidays, which I should have realized.

But then, we're always thinking of ourselves first, even when we shouldn't, aren't we?

So these are the books that arrived this week, and that I expect I'll be reading next:

Dreyer's English is a book about writing style, I think mostly along the lines of Strunk & White, from Benjamin Dryer, head managing editor and copy chief for Random House. I haven't been an editor for a decade now, but the editor brain still lurks, so I expect I will Have Opinions on it. This has been pretty much universally lauded, so those opinions may be mostly positive, but I can never predict just how contrarian I will be, so no promises.

Pumpkinheads is a graphic novel written by noted teen novelist Rainbow Rowell and drawn by Faith Erin Hicks. My guess is that Rowell is the bigger draw here -- though their names are the same size on the book, so I could be wrong -- but I've never read her books. (My vague sense is that they are modern-teen relationship books, so the kids are gay or trans or different races rather than the similar books I read as a teen, which were all about broken homes and sad rich kids and rebellion against parents. Every generation gets the books their elders think they deserve, I guess.) I'm a low-key Hicks fan, though -- especially her wonderful The Adventures of Superhero Girl -- so that's why I'm here for what looks like a sweet on-the-verge-of-growing-up story about one night between two friends.

Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihuru -- I'd put in a request for this book well before the felonious activities of this week, but, if I hadn't, I'm sure I would be searching it out anyway. We all need to pay attention to stories of how to stop fascists, especially those marching in our streets and threatening violence. And in our world, we won't have a superpowered alien boy scout to save us. This also is supposed to be very good, and is loosely based on a famous old radio series that supposedly had a marked negative effect on the Klan, so that's good stuff all around.

Dragon Hoops is also by Gene Luen Yang, and he's solo this time -- this is his big graphic novel follow-up to the two-book Boxers and Saints, from almost a decade ago. (Comics take a while, a lot of the time -- especially big comics that tell one story all by one person.) This looks to go back closer to the model of American Born Chinese, Yang's big book before B&S, which was a (slightly fictionalized? I haven't read it in years) story about his own life, and concerned with representation and assimilation, with how to grow up into a world that was made for people who are different from you and still say essentially yourself individually and culturally. Hoops seems to be narrated by Yang himself, though I'm not sure if it's all his story, or a wider look at basketball, sports, and representation in America.

Maggy Garrison is a graphic novel about the title character, a youngish (I think) woman in London who falls into a criminal underworld but (also I think) comes out well all the time. It's written by Lewis Trondheim -- whose work I haven't seen as much the past few years; I'm not clear if he's been focusing more on editorial work or his stuff is not getting translated like it was a decade ago or if I'm just missing it -- and drawn by Stephane Oiry, who's work I haven't seen before. So this looks like something different from Trondheim: my sense is that he did SFF (either silly and for younger readers or Donjon dark for adults), artsy autobio and conceptual comics, and some general adventure, but it all was in an essentially French millieu before Maggy. (As opposed to someone like Tardi, who's done a lot of stories set in various noir versions of the USA.)

Giant Days, Volume 10 is written as usual by John Allison, though the art is divided between Max Sarin (the regular artists, possibly taking a break for two of the issues collected here) and Julia Madrigal (who has a style that's similar enough to Sarin's to slot in nicely, though she has a fussy thing about drawing noses with an extra line across the bridge that kept drawing me up short). Whitney Cogar does the colors as usual. And here I might just have to give up: if you're reading this on a full-size screen it might look wonky before the next book image, since I don't have anything more to say. I've already read this; I'm hoping to write more about it (and volumes 8+9) later today. So: there it is.

Last is Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye, Vol. 2: Every Me, Every You, which was written by Jon Rivera and Gerard Way and drawn by Michael Avon Oeming, with colors by Nick Filardi. Again, I read the first book, realized the library system had the second (and concluding volume) and decided sticking both into one post would be a better thing. I have, as of right this second, read one of the issues collected here, and have a bookmark stuck into it. But that's as far as I've gotten. But this will probably run under my eyes later today, and we'll see what flows out from that through my fingers in the next few days.

Friday, January 08, 2021

Quote of the Week: America

What I've been interested in, of course, is writing about America -- or, as I realized a few years after I began "U.S. Journal," in writing about America without an emphasis on politics and government. Some ways of doing that didn't suit my needs. I wasn't interested in doing what is sometimes called Americana -- stories about people like the last fellow in Jasper Country Georgia, who can whittle worth a damn. I didn't want to do stories about typical or representative Americans -- stories about, say, the struggles of a Midwestern Farm Family to make ends meet. Although I was interested in places, I wasn't comfortable writing about a city or a state or a region in general terms; I didn't do stories that could be called "Boston at Three Hundred" or "Is the New South Really New?" I went every three weeks not to a place but to a story -- to an event or a controversy or, now and then, a killing.
 - Calvin Trillin, from the Introduction to the 2017 edition of Killings, p.xiii

Thursday, January 07, 2021

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 7 by North, Henderson & Renzi

This is volume seven of something, I'm coming to it about two years later, and I'm typing this on Christmas day between other festivities. [1] So I expect this will be a short and perfunctory post -- those of you who care about Squirrel Girl likely read this book a while ago, and I don't have high hopes of convincing any of the rest of you at this point.

So, first up, this comes after the previous collections of the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl comic: one and two and three and four and five and six. And also the OGN, which slots in around volume four or so.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 7: I've Been Waiting for a Squirrel Like You is written by Ryan North (except one short story in issue 26), drawn by Erica Henderson (except issue 26, though she wrote one story there) and colored by Rico Renzi (who only did part of issue 26). It collects issues 22-26 of the comic of the title and something called A Year of Marvels: The Unbeatable #1 -- which is actually written by Nilah Magruder with layouts by Geoffo and final art by Siya Oum -- that I think was part of some series of one-offs (maybe to introduce new talent?) that I have never heard of before and which is unconnected to the main story.

The Unbeatable is a perfectly OK sixteen-page story in which Squirrel Girl's sidekick Tippy-Top (a squirrel) teams up with Rocket Raccoon (from the Guardians of the Galaxy) to defeat a villain in New York's Central Park, who has brought trees to life and intends to Conquer the World! So, yeah, that's a thing tacked on the end of this book.

The aforementioned issue 26 is a jam issue -- I suspect it was also the "help Henderson stay on track with monthly deadlines" issue, since drawing twenty-plus pages of girls and squirrels monthly is relentless and time-consuming -- featuring stories drawn by Madeline McGrane, Chip Zdarsky, Tom Fowler, Carla Speed McNeil, Michael Cho, Razzah, Anders Nilsen, Rico Renzi, and Jim "Garfield" Davis. It has a lot of clever stuff, but -- since it's all officially stories told by characters from the Squirrel Girl comic -- it's also pretty inside-baseball, amusing and fun but slight and entirely for fans.

The main bulk of the book, though, is a five-part story in which Doreen Green (also known as the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl) and her best friend and roommate Nancy Whitehead win a computer-programming contest to go to the Savage Land, the alien-created area of Antarctica where dinosaurs still roam. Complications ensue there, not least the discovery of "Ultron, who is a dinosaur now." (One might be surprised that it took North, famously creator of Dinosaur Comics, to get dinosaurs into this book.) If you are wondering if Doreen and her friends -- including a supposedly-unfriendly programming team from Latveria, Doctor Doom's homeland -- defeat Ultron and save the world, please see the title again.

As always, this is fun and zippy and does not take itself entirely seriously. It is a comic set in a superhero universe featuring a young woman who is a bit zaftig, has sensible hair and a reasonably sensible costume, and prefers to talk to people rather than punch them. Of course it ended: how could such a thing last? (Has she been rebooted with peekaboo cutouts and a tragic backstory yet?)

[1] Not a whole lot of festivities, since it is 2020, but small, sensible, socially distanced festivities.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

He is pretty sure his name is not Piranesi. But there is only one other person in the world, and that person calls him Piranesi -- so what else can we call a man who doesn't know his name?

Perhaps the Devoted Son of the House, I suppose -- but that is awfully long as a name, and he doesn't call himself that until nearly the end.

(For a long time, I tried to hold doubt in my head that Piranesi was necessarily a man. That's a bad assumption to make with any fiction, especially a tricky one, especially a twenty-first century one, especially one by a woman, especially one told in the first person. But, in the end, he is: that is not one of the tricks Susanna Clarke is playing here.)

Piranesi lives in a House that is a World, a place of capitalized nouns: Halls and Vestibules and Passages, Statues and Staircases and Windows, Doorways and Plinths and Courtyards. As far as he can tell, it extends infinitely in all directions from a room he has designated the First Hall -- and that is indeed first, though he does not know why. The House has three levels, connected by Staircases with steps built as if for giants -- the Lower Halls are inundated by the Sea, with Tides that pursue complicated patterns and rise into the middle level on dependable schedules. The Upper Halls are full of clouds, the domain of the sky. Piranesi travels to both of those areas, but doesn't stay long -- Lower to fish and gather seaweed, Upper to flee dangerous Tides and to navigate around collapsed sections of the Middle Halls. He lives in the Middle Halls, among Statues and birds and vast, endless vistas. He spends his days exploring -- ever farther, in every direction, if he can -- fishing, mending his nets, and doing all small survival-oriented tasks.

The reader knows something is very unusual in this world; Piranesi does not. As far as he recalls, this the the entire world, and the way a world should be. Manufactured objects come to him from The Other -- that second person, who he sees twice a week -- and he never questions what they are or whence they came. (The reader may spend a lot of time thinking about these objects, and what they imply about the House.) He doesn't even realize that The Other is absent from the House between their meetings. In his view, the World contains fifteen people, which is a lot. There is himself and The Other, who are alive, and the bones of thirteen others, who he cares for and maintains and keeps safe from the Tides.

He thinks, often, about a Sixteenth Person, alive or dead. Someone new and different in the House, something to discover other than more Halls full of Statues and occasional birds. The Other indulges him in this. The Other is seeking a Great and Secret Knowledge: some ancestral human power that once existed, imbuing selected practitioners with magical abilities to control and span and transform. And The Other is using Piranesi to get that knowledge.

The reader knows that. Piranesi thinks they are colleagues and equals. Piranesi is wrong. Piranesi also thinks The Other is his friend: he thinks many things that are not true, and the reader will learn, by the end, why he came to believe those things.

Piranesi is the story of the man who is not named Piranesi. He has a habit of writing down his daily activities in a series of journals: the novel is a collection of those entries, over the course of five or six months in what Piranesi calls The Year the Albatross Came to the South-Western Halls. The reader will wonder if Piranesi has forgotten our world or if he never knew it: the reader will learn the truth.

There will be a Sixteenth Person. There will be unexpected Persons not included in the count. Piranesi will delve in his back journals and in the Halls to find answers to questions he did not even realize were questions. And this reader will not spoil any of that.

This is a magnificent short novel, precise and entirely itself, creating its entire World -- limited in things, unlimited in scope -- and then unrolling explanations of that World bit by bit as Piranesi learns or rediscovers them. It is fantasy. It is very much the next book by the writer who wrote the magisterial Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It has been more than a decade, and Piranesi is a much shorter, sharper thing than its predecessor, but it does not disappoint.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 4 by Herge

I always have to begin these Tintin posts with a disclaimer: this is my first time reading these books, and I am a middle-aged man. I read the first three Tintin omnibuses during my last Book-A-Day run, in 2018 -- one and two and three -- but never saw any of the series in my childhood.

So this is not a re-read; I'm coming to seventy-year-old adventure stories for tween boys fresh and with the eyes of someone who grew up on a different continent and several decades later. There may be good things and bad things about that perspective, but it's the only perspective I have, and I'm stuck with it.

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 4 is an omnibus of the twelfth through fourteenth books of the series [1] -- Red Rackham's Treasure, The Seven Crystal Balls and Prisoners of the Sun. And it thus shows the main problem with this 3-in-1 format; Treasure is the second half of the story begun in the last book of Vol. 3, The Secret of the Unicorn. But Balls and Prisoners are also linked stories, so separating them would also have been problematic. (I briefly looked at the list, trying to construct a plan for 2-in-1s or 4-in-1s, but there's no way to be consistent and include all of the canonical books in order -- either some omnibuses would be longer and some shorter, or books would be out of order.) That's a minor issue, though -- Balls has more of a cliffhanger ending than Unicorn did, and even that isn't all that much of a cliffhanger.

Herge is still building his core cast, more than a dozen years into the series and with Treasure the twelfth book. Professor Calculus -- your standard absent-minded genius, here represented as basically deaf and unaware of it -- shows up in that book to provide a high-tech submarine for exploration, and never leaves, since he never understands what anyone tells him. (And that is funny, get it? Most of the humor in Tintin is on that schoolboy level -- slapstick among clearly comedy-relief characters, fake swearing, and painfully extended misunderstandings. Herge is good at this stuff, and it is mostly actually funny in small doses, but it's all quite juvenile.)

As usual, Tintin, our boy hero, is described as a reporter but he never does any reporting or has an identifiable source of support (financial, parental; romantic -- take your pick; they're all missing). He seems to be eternally about twelve years old, living by himself in an apartment in a city that Herge never actually says is Brussels, until he has to dash out on some adventure or other around the world. He is clearly the hero-boy that a few generations of European boys (and probably some girls) wished they could be, which is the source of his success -- it's all vague enough that all of those kids could project themselves into being Tintin.

Treasure is a story of hunting for a shipwreck, and the treasure that may be contained there; it doesn't have anything like a villain, despite some early hints.

Balls sees an Incan curse (well, maybe) befall the seven members of the just-returned Sanders-Hardiman expedition, one by one, as Tintin and his best friend, the blustery and mostly useless alcoholic Captain Haddock, run around and fail to stop any of it. That one has some mild implied racism, though it does also seem to accept that if you dig up the dead kings of some other civilization and drag them away to your home on another continent, the descendants of that civilization are entitled to be quite unhappy with you, and you may suffer nasty consequences.

Tintin and Haddock continue chasing the source of that "curse" back to South America in Prisoners, which is slightly more racist (and reliant on one of the oldest gags in the book for a last-minute escape from human sacrifice [2]) and features a very long slog through dangerous scenery and then captivity at the hands of the aforementioned descendants.

These books in particular are not very plotty: it's the same kind of thing over and over until Herge exhausts the premise or his page count. (Treasure: moving the ship around, diving here and there, going back to that one island yet again. Balls: this guy is in a coma! Quick, let's save the next guy! Oops, too late. Repeat. Prisoners: you say there's a forest and then a mountain chain and then another forest and then another mountain chain? And we get to fall off the mountains and be ambushed repeatedly? Oh, joy.) Each page is fun and full of incident, but it's difficult for Herge to hide that he has a lot of the same kinds of incidents one after another.

Again: these were for boys. And, specifically, for boys born in French-speaking Europe in the 1930s to begin with, and then for boys born in the '40s, '50s, and '60s in a slightly wider geographical remit. That they're still fun adventure stories for an American middle-aged man in 2020 is a nice bonus; a lot of work from that era (these stories were serialized in the mid-to-late 1940s and published as books immediately afterward) have aged much worse.

[1] See Wikipedia for the full list, including the brain-numbing details of the first two (politically and racially offensive) books that are slightly repressed and not part of the omnibus series, and the final unfinished book which is also not included in an omnibus. Thus, the number of books in the series is anywhere from twenty-one to twenty-four, depending on how you want to argue.

[2] You're thinking you know which one. You are probably right. It is that obvious.