Friday, May 20, 2022

Quote of the Week: Sorry, eh?

There are even more galvanizing aspects to the Canadian psyche than mere reticence. There is the collective fear, at least when I was growing up, of becoming too big for our britches. To paraphrase Lorne Michaels (my countryman), it's the kind of place where they award Miss Canada to the runner-up because the prettiest already gets to be prettiest. Rather than demanding liberty, or, failing that, death, we are a country forever giving up our seats to the elderly, all the while thanking one another for not smoking.

 - David Rakoff, "Extraordinary Alien," p.97 in Fraud

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Steeple, Vol. 2: The Silvery Moon by John Allison

As I type this, my post on the first volume of Steeple was written close to a month ago but has not yet gone live. So I am trying to space things out on this blog, but I may not be spacing them quite far enough for my own systems to work well. (Let's hope I remember, once that post does go live, to drop in a link here somewhere.)

In any case, this is a sequel to the first Steeple, which was written and drawn by John Allison with colors from Sarah Stern and letters from Jim Campbell. The first collection also appeared first as a five-issue series of floppy comics.

Steeple, Vol. 2: The Silvery Moon, by comparison, appeared originally on-line at Allison's site, and is an all-Allison joint. (There is a cover by Max Sarin, presumably in an attempt to draw in the Giant Days audience.) This one collects two somewhat discrete stories, and I can even link you to those stories online, on the cheekily-titled site: The Silvery Moon and Secret Sentai. I just noticed they were (still) there; I haven't been as good at keeping up with Allison's new comics there over the past couple of years as I vaguely searched for a copy of the first Steeple book to read first.

Anyway: this is set in a different corner of the Scarygoround -cum-Giant Days-iverse, down in the Cornish town of Tredregyn, where Rev. David Penrose upholds the glory of the Church of England by battling invading mermen every night (and doing essentially nothing vicaresque besides that) and the Magus Tom Pendennis does what he wilt at the Church of Satan down the lane, and what he wilt is generally sneaky and not always nice, but it tends not to be what one would actually call evil.

It's more like a football rivalry than a battle for the soul of the town, honestly: the locals line up with their rooting preferences, and it seems like Satan is well in the lead, maybe because he always has the best tunes and dancing.

Our main characters are Billie Baker and Maggie Warren; the trainees in the two churches. Billie came to town for the CoE, but, through some odd events at the end of the first book, the two have switched roles, with the lusty, motorcycle-riding Maggie now assisting Rev. David and energetic and immensely good-hearted Billie now organizing community outreach for Satan.

Allison, as usual, has a decent-sized central cast, who are interestingly quirky. I don't think these folks have gotten quite as defined as the Giant Days crew or his best Bad Machinery characters (Lottie Grote, for example), but they've had fewer pages to do so to date.

In any case: this is two more adventures of Billie and Maggie, one with a werewolf and one with a Japanese guy in a funny costume. They are both Allisonianly quirky and fun, and he's filling out the details of this corner of his world nicely as he has more pages and time to do so.

I've said it many times: Allison is one of the most entertaining, and most distinctive, comics-makers of his generation, and his stories are always fun and always different from what anyone else is doing. How can you not want to read that? 

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The Golden Age, Book 2 by Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa

Endings are harder than beginnings: any story-teller will tell you that. So if I quibble that The Golden Age doesn't end as well as it begins, I'm largely saying that it's a story, and that's what stories do.

Reading the second half, though - the graphic novel or bande dessinee The Golden Age, Book 2, written by Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa, and drawn by Pedrosa with some coloring support from others - there were several times my editor's pen itched to make notes. I don't know if these would have made the story better, but if I were involved in the creation, these are the things I would have asked.

First, Book One follows Tilda, the older child of the now-dead king of Antrevers. The beginning of Book Two looks like it might follow her younger brother, who finally gets a name (Edwald) for what I think was the first time at the very end of this book. Edwald does not become our viewpoint at any time here; this is still Tilda's story. And maybe it had to be. But for a story about political factions and civil war, about opinions on how the world is supposed to be, about noblesse oblige and the democratic impulse, about the battle for the soul of a kingdom, something wider than just Tilda and a handful of advisors as viewpoints would have been useful. As it is, Edwald's side is basically an evil caricature, with nothing good or positive about them, not even stability or continuity, and that feels like a lack.

Second, both books begin with the same group of peasants, standing in for the whole population of Antrevers, the ones who will be affected by all of these battles and decisions by nobles and kings. It looks like those people may be important to the action of the story, as thematically they are important: The Golden Age is the story of a transition from autocracy to something like democracy, in a very simplified sense. But they really aren't. The masses are there to fight against each other, while the Important People stand in the center of panels to declaim and fight each other, to do the Important Things. The Golden Age says that it's about them, but like so many supposedly-democratic works of the fantastic, the strong single person is more interesting, easier to work with narratively, than a mass of "just ordinary people."

I like parallels; I like books to set things up and then knock them down; I like guns on mantlepieces to be taken down at just the right moment and fired. Golden Age does not quite do those things; it instead is caught up in a vague supernatural element that seems to inherently corrupt all of the autocratic rulers of Antrevers and a possibly prophetic old book of political philosophy (or is it mean to be religion? It's presented in the manner of a religious text, but its matter is political). Golden Age seems to want to say this mystical book is the Law of the Universe, but the actual operation of the magical things here is deeply obscure: are they set up by a god or gods? were they the embodied power of the ancient kings who stole power from the masses? were they self-generated somehow? are they actually operating against each other, as they seem to be, or is there some deeper balance underneath them?

So, anyway, there's a magical box and a magical book. The book is supposed to be in the box, but the box seems to be the source of all the bad stuff and the book the source of all the good stuff, so thematically, locking the good stuff inside the bad is a weird metaphor.

I should be clear, after going so deeply into the weeds: this is the subtext, and only occasionally reaches the level of text. The story here is that Tilda's tired, mostly unpaid, deeply fragile army is besieging Edwald's castle, and not doing well. Tilda has had a vision of victory, and is utterly uncompromising in that vision, but does not seem to notice ways that the actual world does not line up with her visions. Meanwhile, another army loyal to Edwald is on its way: Tilda's forces need to win quickly, or will lose forever. And she's already shattered most of their strength in repeated pointless assaults on a portion of the curtain wall she is sure her forces can break.

So the story is about the siege, and the fight, and who lives and who dies, and how they kill each other. The big ending includes the book and the box, and whatever magics they have. And, as I said, it works pretty well but feels not quite as crisp as it should be to me.

Pedrosa, though, gives us another set of absolutely gorgeous pages, striking in their vibrant colors and stunning in their energy. That makes up for any gaps in the themes: the book powers over any possible quibbles through pure visual power, culminating in a stunning phantasmagorical conclusion. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Fraud by David Rakoff

I didn't start reading David Rakoff until after he died, which I suppose is unfortunate for both of us. (Him more so, obviously.) He was a moderately popular writer of humorous nonfiction, semi-autobiographical division, presenting-self-as-incompetent subdivision, with major lines of patter about being gay, Jewish and Canadian (and sometimes all three at once). He only published three books of essays, since his full-time writing career only lasted a little more than a decade. I've now, a decade after he died, managed to read two of the three: I'm not getting to anything all that quickly these days.

I read Don't Get Too Comfortable in 2015, and covered it in a long, everything-I-read-that-month post. But this is the book before that; this is the one that introduced Rakoff to the world. Well, as much as anything did; he was a magazine writer so had been writing in public and getting attention for five years or so before this book came out in 2001.

So this is Fraud: a collection of essays about mostly topical things of the late '90s, from a deeply neurotic point of view, by a man now dead. It's still funny, I'm happy to say, but it does feel like it comes from another world these days: the world twenty years ago is not at all the world today. It was a sillier, lighter, more frivolous place...or at least it seemed so, to people who like me and Rakoff who were relatively young then.

The loose through-line is given by the cover: Rakoff does present himself as incompetent in most aspects of modern life, but, really, this is a collection of magazine essays and This American Life pieces. It's all go-there, look-at-this-stuff reporting designed to be humorous, and it all succeeds pretty well. Rakoff was good at being funny, whether he's climbing a New Hampshire mountain, looking for fairies in Iceland, spending time with a group of new NYC schoolteachers from Austria, or returning to Tokyo (where he lived briefly soon after college).

If you like I-am-incompetent humor, from a New York point of view, Rakoff was very good at that at and very funny. And he's got at least two books in that mode - I still haven't read his third, Half Empty, which I hear is more dour and (not coincidentally) was written while he was unsuccessfully fighting Hodgkin's lymphoma, so I can't speak to that one.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of May 14, 2022

I have a Platonic ideal in mind for a lot of the things I do - you may as well.

We don't always manage to hit that level, but it's always there, as something to strive and hope for, a benchmark to compare to.

For these "Reviewing the Mail" posts, the Platonic ideal is pretty simple: at least one new book to write about (the best would be precisely one), preferably a book I want to read. In the perfect case, it would be a book I didn't know existed until it hit my hands.

Reader, today is as close to that ideal as I have ever come.

The one book I have to write about this week is a new middle-grade novel by Daniel Pinkwater, who's been one of my favorite writers since I was in the middle grades. It's called Crazy in Poughkeepsie, it's just been published by Tachyon, and I'd been paying so little attention that I didn't know it was coming at all.

So this is, I think, his first book since Adventures of a Dwergish Girl, which was also set in the Hudson Valley. Does that mean the two books are related? Pinkwater has done clusters of loosely related books several times in his career, so it could be that. It could also be that he lives near Poughkeepsie, and has for decades, and generally sets books in places he has lived - Poughkeepsie, Hoboken, Chicago.

It's also illustrated, by Aaron Renier, who is also a graphic novelist, of the Walker Bean books (which are pretty darn good thereownselves, I'd say).

So this looks like it's exactly my sort of thing, and I'm avoiding reading the back-cover copy to give you more details here, because I expect to start reading it later today and probably finishing it before the weekend is over. So why get preconceptions I don't need?

I'm going to read it. My recommendation is that you do so as well. Have a nice week.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Quote of the Week: Be Here Now

I said to myself: three days

and you'll be seven years old.

I was saying it to stop

the sensation of falling off

the round, turning world

into cold, blue-black space.

But I felt: you are an I,

you are an Elizabeth,

you are one of them.

Why should you be one, too?

 - Elizabeth Bishop, "In the Waiting Room," lines 54-63, p.160 in The Complete Poems: 1927-1979

Thursday, May 12, 2022

The True Story of the Unknown Soldier by Tardi

The title gives away the end. You may not realize how, as you dive into the surreal, dreamlike early pages, but it will all be clearer by the end. And the title gives away the end.

The True Story of the Unknown Solider is a very early work by Tardi, the French cartoonist whose parents named him Jacques. It is one slim album with two stories in it: the title story, and one called "The National Razor." Both are the stories of a very young man, enthusiastic and energetic, strong in his passions for love and hate, and both stories have the characteristic strengths and weaknesses of a man like that.

The back-cover copy gives away all of the secrets of "True Story" - our hero is a pulp fictioneer turned Great War solider, traveling through visions in his own mind. Again, you won't learn this reading the story for at least half its length: you'll get the surrealism and the abrupt breaks without knowing why, much like the nameless protagonist. (So perhaps, if you're going to read this book, forget what I just said and avoid reading the back cover.)

"National Razor" is somewhat anti-war as well, though the title refers to the guillotine, which Tardi is also against. I found this one a bit more muddled, though less obviously surreal. Its hero has returned from war - which one is not clear, or important - and is out of synch with his life. He's either pulled into strange conspiracies or violently reacting to shell-shock, or maybe even both. He commits horrible crimes...I think, and is punished viciously for them.

At this stage in Tardi's work - see also his first published album, Farewell, Brindavoine - I get a sense that only the Tardi-character is important, that only the skinny guy in the bowler hat and mustache at the center of the story matters. Women are distractions or sex-objects, other men are threats or monsters, the world exists to torment and chafe That One Guy. Later it would all change; later he would have world with more real people in it. But, at this point, it's all id: all That One Guy and the things that happens to him.

These two stories are weird and thorny and a bit slapdash, in that way of a young energetic creator. I could dig in more to the details and themes, but that feels like nailing a butterfly to a wall: it's better to read and experience them. So do that, if this makes you interested at all.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop

Do you know how long it takes me to get a to a book on my to-read shelves? I can give you one hint: this book was superseded a decade ago, a newer, possibly larger Poems having hit in 2011. I just discovered that when searching for a link and finding the book I own is deeply out of print. (I was hoping there was something newer, and I was happy to find that true.)

My copy of Elizabeth Bishop's The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 is from the fifteenth printing in 1995, with a 10% off penciled price on the first page, so I might have gotten it it new. I'm pretty sure it was the late '90s, but can't tell any more specifically than that. It's been on my shelves for a couple of decades, moving bookcases and somehow surviving my 2011 basement flood.

And I finally read it this year: I'm trying to read the work of at least one poet a year, someone I know a little about but haven't read in depth before. For Bishop, what I knew was that she went to Vassar, decades before me, so there's an old home connection. And of course "Visits to St. Elizabeth." I'd probably also read "The Moose" at some point.

But that was it: I knew she wrote poetry, went to the same college as me, lived and died before I even knew her name. Had a vague sense of her life, and did a little Wiki-reading when starting this book, but that's not particularly relevant. Bishop was a very private woman, and wanted her poetry to stand on its own. I can understand that, and do my little bit to reinforce it.

Complete Poems is short: less than three hundred pages, even collecting what I think were four separate books (North & South, A Cold Spring, Questions of Travel, and Geography III) and several previous "collected" editions. The last fifty pages are translations, mostly from the Portuguese - she lived in Brazil for a long time - with a few from French and Spanish.

It's organized in what I think is the usual standard: chronological for the major work, then the "Poems Written in Youth" (youth being up to a year before the first "mature" poem, in her mid-20s), and finally those translations. That means the reader begins with the most tightly constructed, hermetic Bishop poems: she loosened up, I think, as her life and career went on.

I am no good critic of poetry. So I try to point at what I see, what seems interesting. In Bishop I see a lot of work about places, either where she was living on traveling at the time or places from her youth - lots of Brazil, lots of Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. The poet is usually absent, or, rather, the poet is the viewpoint rather than a speaker or the line of argument. Bishop's poems, to me, seem to be mostly about seeing, or maybe inhabiting, about the world around in all its complexity, and how things and people fit into that world.

There's a lot of good poetry here. I'll have an excerpt I particularly like for the weekly quote this Friday. And I end posts about poetry the same way every time: read poetry. It's condensed language, deeper and richer and more concentrated than prose. We all need to take time to read the hard stuff. Maybe for you it could be Bishop, or Shelley, or Spenser, or someone brand new. But poetry, I think, is even more important than prose, more central. So we all should take the time for it, when we can.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Saturday and Sunday, Vol. 2: Hearts of Palm by Fabien Vehlmann and Gwen De Donneval

Sometimes you just want to point back at what you said about the first book in a series and say: "Yes, that, but again, with a different story and some new wrinkles."

But that would make an awfully short blog post.

Fabien Vehlmann and Gwen De Bonneval have made comics together before starting the "Saturday and Sunday" series for young readers - I saw their Last Days of An Immortal almost a decade ago, and that's not the only project they did together - and I have no idea how they turned to works for pre-adults. (My guess, always, is that one or both of them obtained some pre-adults in their own households, and that led to the usual changes in life and focus.)

They're also both French, and - as I said in that first blog post that I will link to, yes, but not yet - at least in the French books for young readers that get translated, there seems to be a different emphasis, less of a concern for instruction and more on exploration.

So, anyway, the first book in this series was Rock Heaven. (See: I told you I'd get to the link eventually.)

And the second one is Hearts of Palm, which is what I should be talking about today.

Saturday and Sunday are two little lizard guys who live on a beach, somewhere that seems vaguely tropical or at least lush and full of life in the season these stories take place. They're young, as far as I can tell, without a huge experience of life. In the first book, they seemed to just be there, mostly alone and on their own, but this second book connects them to a community - all of the other lizards live underground just away from their beach.

The elder lizards want to stay underground, where all are safe from dangers known and unknown. The young ones want to leave right now, live somewhere else, do new things, run around like crazy, partake in some of the substances available on the island, and probably spend a lot of time pairing up.

Saturday and Sunday are not exactly leaders, but they're people who have done and seen more than most, so they're influential, and used by both sides as examples (for and against) and dragged in to bolster arguments that have nothing to do with them.

The other major plot thread is love - Sunday is a bit of a player, happily dating one girl and then another without any obvious guilt or concern. Saturday falls harder, with a Charlie Brown-level crush on a girl he can't quite figure out how to talk to. She, of course, also talks to other boys, which ties him in knots. And there's another girl, pointedly less obviously attractive, who is interested in him and who he blows off even more than his inamorata does to him.

None of this is stated; no one learns a lesson or is told the best way to live. Vehlmann and De Bonneval tell the story, confident that their audience, as young as it is, will pick up on the details and figure out how to apply them.

This is not a plotty book: the central through-line is about Saturday's love affair, with the youth explosion of the lizards as background. And there are plenty of things young readers - or even older ones - could take away from it; Vehlmann and De Bonneval are sneaky and thoughtful and wise in the way they set up this story and give all of their characters room to make decisions. Those decisions are good or bad or indifferent, but always theirs, which is the most important thing.

If you have pre-adults of the right ages - I'd say late elementary or early middle school, just before or as they're starting to look around and take note of their individual alluring ones - this is a good series to make available to them. Or read it yourself: that's always a good choice.

Monday, May 09, 2022

Reading Into the Past: Week of May 9, 1997

When I get books in the mail, I write about them here. When I don't, I write about stuff I read years ago, daring my memory to work.

This time out, it's 1997. What were we all doing and thinking and reading twenty-five years ago? Well, here's from me:

Daniel Pool, Dickens' Fur Coat and Charlotte's Unanswered Letters (5/2)

I'm pretty sure this was a nonfiction book of quirky facts about 19th century writers, probably centered on their stuff. But that's about all that comes to mind from the title. Let's see if a search will jog my memory.

OK, this is more specifically a book about publishing, which explains why I read it. (We all love the secret minutia of our own worlds.) Pool had previously written What Charles Dickens Ate and Jane Austen Knew, so he was the go-to guy for random facts about Victorian novelists in the mid-90s. I still don't remember much about the book itself, though.

Harry Turtledove, How Few Remain (typescript, 5/4)

Turtledove has specialized in long books (often in long series) of alternate history, minutely detailed and well-researched, moving forward slowly in time from a hinge-point. I read a lot of them during my time at the SFBC, and generally enjoyed them, though I cursed long books floridly in those days, since I had a never-ending editorial maw to feed and the books in the field just kept getting longer and longer for the same quantity of plot.

This book is the beginning of what I think is his longest series - this book, then two trilogies and a tetralogy - starting from that durable old saw, "what if the South won the Civil War?" It has lots and lots and lots of stuff happening, over the course of eleven books, most involving famous people you will have heard of (even in the later books, when one might assume the winds of fate would have blown elsewise). I'm not always as thrilled with Turtledove's people as his extrapolation, and there does sometimes seem to be a grinding element in his books, as if he is milling them out of refined history, and there's only so much personality he can manage to get into them. But, especially if you really like alternate history, hit this one, and know you have ten more coming.

Christopher Finch, The Art of Walt Disney (5/4)

Some kind of art book; my main memory is that the cover was a bluish-purple. Let me search and see how wrong I am.

Well the current edition is from 2011, and the hegemonic Internet retailer lists earlier editions in 1973 and 1988, but not one in 97-98. I'm pretty sure there was a new edition then, but I cannot find proof of it, or the color of its cover. In any case, this was a book about Walt the man and Disney the company, in a hagiographic mode, with lots and lots of art and even more gushing about how wonderful every last bit of that art was. I enjoyed it, but you may faintly detect that I did not entirely drink the Kool-Aid.

Various, The Amalgam Age of Comics: The Marvel Comics Collection (5/4)

This was a goofy thing, which seems to be half-forgotten now. Marvel and DC had a big weird crossover event in the mid-90s - subtext: the direct market was imploding and sales were plummeting, so everyone was throwing every last idea at the wall to see if anything would stick - in which there were a whole bunch of one-shots with "Amalgam" characters who were all one DC hero + one Marvel hero in the same person.

It was massively gimmicky, hugely inside baseball, and only within waving distance of seriousness - I thought it was fun at the time, but it was very much for people who knew all the details on both sides and wanted to see talented creators ring changes on those details.

The stories were collected into two trade paperbacks, one each from the two companies: this was the Marvel book. Both are deeply out of print, probably for we-don't-work-together-anymore reasons, and almost certainly not worth what you would have to pay for them. Someday some giant conglomerate will buy both companies and this will be in print again (in a lousy edition missing important sections and with an introduction from someone currently hot and twenty years too young to have any useful things to say); wait to get it at that point.

Matt Groening, The Huge Book of Hell (5/5)

I think this was the massive omnibus of Life In Hell, which came out after Groening admitted that the strip was dead and Simpsons would be the entirety of his life until the sweet release of death. (Or something like that.)

And it's another book that seems to be deeply out of print, oddly. It also does not seem to be as comprehensive as I was thinking: it may have just been the new Life In Hell book, or a mixed old/new collection, or something like that. I tend to want to say that you should go to the original books - Love Is Hell, Work Is Hell, School Is Hell - and leave it at that if you want to read Groening. In fact, yes. I do still say that. Go there instead.

Tim Cahill, Pass the Butterworms (5/6)

Cahill was - probably still is; it wasn't that long ago - a travel writer with a vaguely gonzo reputation; I remember reading a bunch of his books in the '90s. I believe this was his new book at the time, and it may have been the last book of his I read. (I don't think those two facts are connected.)

I see that Cahill only had one more book of travel essays after this one - 2002's Hold the Enlightenment - and that he's in his upper seventies now; he was older than I thought. (Another one of those Boomers who were so ubiquitous in everything when I was younger.) I may have actually kept up with his books, then, he just didn't have as many as I thought. (He was an editor for Outside for ages, so he had a day-job besides running off to odd corners of the world and writing about it.)

My memory is that Cahill is always entertaining, and that his books can be roughly ranked by how outrageous their titles are - so Jaguars Ripped My Flesh is at the top, then A Wolvering Is Eating My Leg, then Pecked to Death By Ducks, and so on.

Ian McEwan, First Love, Last Rites (5/7)

Did I read this book that late? My memory is that I caught up with McEwan much earlier in the '90s than this, but I guess not. This was, I think, his first short-story collection, way back at the beginning of his career, so my guess is that I was working backwards, and finished here.

McEwan became a better writer, technically, from this point. But I don't know if he has ever been a stronger writer: these are dark, harrowing, compelling stories, with the fierceness and power that only a young man can muster.

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (5/7)

I see I was reading picture books even a year before my first son was born; this would have been well before we had any idea Thing 1 was coming. This was the first of two picture books from Gaiman and McKean, following various other collaborations from the Sandman covers to Violent Cases and Mr. Punch. (Did they ever work on a movie together? I don't think so.)

I still think The Wolves in the Walls is a better book in all ways, but this is a lot of fun, and I recall it being a hoot to read aloud, which is a huge bonus in a picture book.

Friday, May 06, 2022

Quote of the Week: A Model for Pundits for Centuries to Come

For all its obnoxiousness, Boyle against Bentley is an extremely entertaining read, something which could never be said for Bentley's Dissertation itself. Macaulay thought it was a masterpiece, though only in its own way: the limited field of tag-team attacks on worthier opponents. He later expands on this view, dubbing it 'the best book ever written by any man on the wrong side of a question of which he was profoundly ignorant,' a neatly double-edged evaluation of the Boyle groups' wit and their ability as classicists.

 - Dennis Duncan, Index, A History of the, p.149

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Assholes by Bram Algoed & Micah Stahl

Does this count as a foreign comic? It's written by an American (Micah Stahl) but drawn by a Belgian (Bram Algoed), and was originally published in Dutch - this edition is a translation, and comes from an outfit (Europe Comics) specifically devoted to bringing Eurocomics to Amerireaders.

That's foreign enough for my purposes, but there's an additional wrinkle: this is a satire, with two main characters who are, well, Assholes. One is American, one is British. So to restate the original issue: does this count as someone else picking on those people, or is it all within the family?

It's familiar enough, and the satirical targets (rich, self-obsessed TV celebrities! golf!) are broad and obvious enough that I don't think anyone will actually care. But it does make the is-the-call-coming-from-inside-the-house? question more interesting here than usual.

Anyway, this book takes place all during one morning, at a presumably exclusive golf club, the Royal Marabou, which seems to be somewhere in the LA area. Two popular game-show hosts, the American Chuck Atkins (of Spin Your Luck) and Simon Kennedy (of Enigma) are starting a round there. Chuck is a big bluff sort with a brushy moustache, on his fourth wife - you know the type. Simon is toothy and slick - you know that type as well.

They both are tremendous assholes, though in my personal scorecard Chuck pulls far ahead on points and the race is never in doubt. The book is structured around their golf round, with chapters for each hole after some brief scene-setting among the caddies and groundskeepers, early that morning. We see Chuck and Simon interact with their fans, insult and belittle each other, do a lot of hitting balls with highly-engineered sticks, drink, and generally act out.

It's all amusing, and often quite funny - assuming you enjoy comedy about assholes. But, then, if you didn't, the title would be enough to keep you away. There's no higher goal, no frisson of discovery or breakthrough: assholes these two men began and assholes they will remain. If that's enough for you, this book provides snappy dialogue and bright art that, to my eye, sits somewhere between ligne claire and a modern North American art-comics look.

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Trese, Vol. 2: Unreported Murders by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldismo

I feel like I did this already, but that was a decade ago, so maybe I need to do it again.

Also, and probably more importantly, the last time I talked about this book, it wasn't actually available at my end of the Pacific at all, which made my praise slightly beside the point for most people. But, luckily, the Trese books are now coming out from Ablaze: the third volume hit in January and the fourth (which is beyond where I saw the first time around) is coming in May. 

But, here we are with Trese 2: Unreported Murders, collecting what were four issues of the floppy-comics series of the same name, originally published in the Philippines sometime in the mid-Aughts. (See also my post from last year on the first book in its Ablaze edition.) Trese is our main character: Alexandra Trese, who runs a bar in Manilla and also is called in by the police on "weird" cases.

This is an urban fantasy, of the common subset that assumes every folkloric or imagined creature is real - they're all out there somewhere, and they interact with each other and mankind in complicated and often violent ways. Sometimes they need to be dealt with, or just figured out. That's what Trese does, and what - as we get some hints in these stories - her father did before her.

On a base level, Trese is just good urban fantasy: taut, exciting, full of action and mystery and strangeness. For Filipinos, there's the added frisson that the fantasy creatures are all part of their folklore - this isn't yet another story full of the same old boring werewolves and vampires and tedious brain-eating zombies. For non-Filipinos, I think that's an even better point: these are strange creatures. I don't know what they are, what they might do, how they connect to the world, what their powers and concerns are. Fantasy all too often falls into the familiar; Trese has no truck with that.

And even more than that, Trese has the secret weapon of KaJo Baldismo's art. Writer Budjette Tan gives him a lot to work with, true - all of those strange and frightening creatures, all of the odd corners of urban life where they lurk - but Baldismo's pages, more often with black backgrounds than white, are gloriously detailed and atmospheric, moving from sketchy figures obscured by mist to tight close-ups on detailed faces quickly and confidently. And don't get me started on the creatures he draws: Baldismo draws the details of horror as well as anyone since Swamp Thing-era Steve Bissette, and has a similar taste for both small things crawling and damp things flying.

As I said, this book collects four stories, four cases. They all have a similar structure: something bad is happening, Trese is called in, and it all gets worse before she fixes it, with the aid of her two bodyguards (not explained here, though they're clearly something folklorically specific, like all of the other supernatural elements), her connections, and her knowledge. They're good stories, creepy and specific and dark and ominous and startling. And, these days, they're easy to find in the USA, so there's no excuse not to read them.

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Little Nothings, Vol. 1: The Curse of the Umbrella by Lewis Trondheim

The world never lives up to our demands of it, but we make those demands anyway. How else are we to live?

And now you're wondering if I'm talking about the substance of this book of diary comics by the French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim, or my reaction to it. Well, Dear Reader, why can't it be both?

I think diary comics work best when anchored: they don't have to be done every single day, but that's the most durable framework for them. One page for one day, dated and specific: building a wall of observation one brick at a time, each one a moment or event in a specific day. New strips can appear irregularly, or weekly, or monthly, depending on when the creator has time - that all works. Regular is better, though, and the date helps reinforce the regularity. This was Tuesday, says the date, like so many other Tuesdays, but here's what was different.

That's my only major quibble with Trondheim's autobiographical comics: they're pretty clearly single pages, done one at a time, probably most days in a stretch but not necessarily all the time, so they line up to a sequence of events over time. And it would be stronger if they were time-stamped in an inobtrusive way: March 1, March 2, or more likely 2 janvier, 3 janvier. Trondheim doesn't do that; as far as I can tell he never did. 

Little Nothings, Vol. 1: The Curse of the Umbrella was published in 2007 in the US; it appeared the year before in French. (And somewhat earlier - another year, maybe two? the sequence is not entirely clear - as individual pages on Trondheim's website, where the sequence still lives. [1]) I'll also note that the book had the somewhat different title La Malediction du Paradise (the Curse of Paradise) in French. I probably should mention the series title is Les petites riens in French, which means basically the same thing as "Little Nothings."

There were seven collections of the diary comics in French; only the first four appeared in English. Given that the US editions appeared from 2007-11, my guess is that Trondheim stopped making these comics not quite a decade ago, but I could be wrong.

Trondheim was an established professional when he made these comics: nearly two decades into his career, settled into fairly quiet suburban life with his wife and two tween children. So these comics tend to be either quietly contemplative - the ones that look at day-to-day life - or about the breaks in his routine, vacations and trips to comics festivals. In this book, he goes to Hong Kong, Madrid, Edinburgh, the Angouleme festival (the one where he won the Grand Prix, actually), Reunion, Dublin. The travel comics fall into sequences: my guess is that these basically span a year, and that Trondheim was more likely to make comics about events but, over the course of that year, basically made a strip for about every third day, mostly in clusters. (Again, without dates, this is mostly speculation.)

From the newest pages on his site, it looks like these were drawn in a sketchbook, with watercolors layered over. I tend to doubt he carried the watercolors on all these trips - though maybe he did; creative types are weird - so maybe he finished the pages later or did most of the work later. On the other hand, some pages are pretty clearly sketched from a specific place - though, again, it's never clear if Trondheim did sketches in a sketchbook in the moment and then cleaned up and redrew things for this project.

In any case: each page is a moment, an full thought. Some thoughts come in sequence, especially on vacation, away from the everyday pressures of the world. They're fun, thoughtful slices of life.

And Trondheim uses a somewhat cartoony, anthropomorphic style for all of this, though I suspect he's sticking closer to people's real appearance than it appears. His bird-headed vision of himself is startlingly similar to real pictures of the cartoonist; specific expressions are clear in his cartoons.

I'll always want more comics about real people living real lives: the Little Nothing books are great examples of that, by one of the masters of world cartooning. They should be much better known than they are.

[1] The website presents the art as photographed sketchbook pages, I think, by Trondheim himself, which may be more interesting for process people. The grain of the paper is clearly visible, and it hasn't been cleaned up for reproduction: it's a view of the art rather than a printed representation of it. Only the last twenty strips seem to be there, though.

Monday, May 02, 2022

Books Read: April 2022

I usually bury these posts on weekends, but I was a month behind, and just remembered to do March yesterday. So this one gets a Monday.

This is what I read this past month; links will follow once the posts go live. (They've all been written as of right now.)

Tardi, The True Story of the Unknown Soldier (4/2)

David Rakoff, Fraud (4/2)

Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa, The Golden Age, Book 2 (4/3)

John Allison, Steeple, Vol. 2: The Silvery Moon (4/9)

Gilbert Hernandez, Blubber (4/10)

Jack Vance, The Eyes of the Overworld (in Tales of the Dying Earth, 4/10)

Brandon Graham, Rain Like Hammers (4/16)

Lewis Trondheim, Little Nothings, Vol. 2:The Prisoner Syndrome (4/17)

Budgette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo, Trese, Vol. 3: Mass Murders (4/23)

Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo, Enigma: The Definitive Edition (4/24)

Peter S. Beagle, Summerlong (4/24)

Jean-Yves Ferri and Manu Larcenet, Back to Basics, Vol. 1: Real Life (4/30)

Sunday, May 01, 2022

Books Read: March 2022

Since I seem to have missed a month, I'm going to do March and post it today, and do April and set that to post tomorrow. That's a rather bland Monday post, but it looks to be a rather bland Monday, so there you go.

Here's what I read a month or so ago:

Noah Van Sciver, Fante Bukowski (digital, 3/5)

Evan Dorkin, et. al., Beasts of Burden: Neighborhood Watch (digital, 3/6)

John le Carre, A Murder of Quality (3/6)

Jeremy Jusay, The Strange Ones (3/12)

John Allison, Sarah Stern, and Jim Campbell, Steeple (3/13)

Lewis Trondheim, Little Nothings, Vol. 1: The Curse of the Umbrella (3/19)

Ian McEwan, Nutshell (3/19)

Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo, Trese, Vol. 3: Unreported Murders (3/20)

Micah Stahl and Algoed Bram, Assholes (digital, 3/26)

Fabien Vehlmann and Gwen De Bonneval, Saturday and Sunday, Vol. 2: Hearts of Palm (digital, 3/27)

Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (3/31)

Normally I would say here "come back in a month to see what I read next," but, this time, it'll be much faster than that. Missing links will appear once the posts go live and I remember to add them, which will probably be early June but, given my forgetfulness, could be never.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Quote of the Week: A Holiday in August, Outside a Bed and Breakfast, in Sunny Southend

There's pathos in this familiar routine, in the sounds of homely objects touching surfaces. And in the little sigh she makes when she turns or slightly bends our unwieldy form.  It's already clear to me how much of life is forgotten even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence. When she's no longer twenty-eight and pregnant and beautiful, or even free, she won't remember the way she set down the spoon and the sound it made on slate, or the frock she wore today, the touch of her sandal's thong between her toes, the summer's warmth, the white noise of the city beyond the house walls, a short burst of birdsong by a closed window. All gone, already.

 - Ian McEwan, Nutshell, p.162

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

There was a time when I was always up-to-date on Ian McEwan's novels. There was also a time when I was young and carefree; life is like that.

Nutshell was his new novel for 2016; he had one before this that I've missed so far, The Children Act, and has published two further novels and a novella since then. So I won't try to make bold claims about the current thrust of his career, though I might point backwards to earlier books like Sweet Tooth and Solar and On Chesil Beach that I have read.

McEwan's books are often arranged around a big idea, and Nutshell is that more than most. It is explicitly a retelling of Hamlet, in modern London, as narrated by a near-term fetus. Yes, indeed.

The unnamed - how could he be named, since he hasn't been born yet? - narrator has the usual wide erudition and cultural knowledge of a McEwan protagonist, which the author lightly lampshades by insisting that his mother listens to a lot of podcasts and other nonfictional programming. He also has a refined palate, including very strong preferences in wines, which presumably he only experiences as mediated through the placenta.

At this point, the reader will suspect that McEwan is hugely indulging himself, and that we will have to do so as well if we want to go along for the ride. Our narrator is a person, I suppose, and one who has occasional impacts on the story, but he's mostly a viewpoint, and a very late-McEwan viewpoint at that.

Anyway: poet John Cairncross has been exiled from his ancestral manse, a decaying pile in a somewhat fashionable London neighborhood. His wife Trudy is living there alone, having kicked out John for reasons that are sufficient but which don't get cataloged in any depth. And John's younger brother Claude, a somewhat dim property developer, is currently fucking Trudy on the regular, in that very home.

Inevitably, Trudy and Claude start to ponder how their lives would be simpler and more filled with riches if only John were to cease to be. This happens, I hasten to add, during the course of the novel: unlike Hamlet, Nutshell begins well before the murder plot does.

The action of Nutshell takes less than a week - I didn't count, but I think it's just more than three days. It is all, again, narrated from within Trudy's uterus by Our Narrator, and you may expect that a writer as fond of unpleasant details as McEwan will lovingly depict some thoughts of what Claude fucking Trudy means for the person at the interior end of her vagina.

This is a short book: less than two hundred pages. McEwan knows he can't overstay his welcome with something as inherently goofy as this, and he doesn't. There is a fair bit of incident, and a whole lot of  amusingly sophisticated (and completely unbelievable, if one stops to think about it for a second) commentary from our unborn gourmand, but, at it's heart, this is a love triangle story that has already hit the end and broken down. 

Though the narrator mentions knowing a lot of things, and does drag in lots of irrelevant high-culture class signifiers in his narration, he misses a lot of more central matters - some because he obviously can't see what's going on, some because he is, let us not forget, a fetus, and some presumably just because McEwan wants it that way. For just one example, it takes the narrator a couple of chapters to realize that Claude, the guy fucking his mother just about every day, is actually his occasionally-mentioned uncle.

Nutshell is not serious in any sense: it is essentially an extended literary joke. It's possibly the most frivolous of McEwan's books. It is funny and casually erudite and full of great lines, but anyone looking for a return of the cold and cruel McEwan of his early career will be disappointed.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Steeple by John Allison with Sarah Stern and Jim Campbell

I have two theories about John Allison's best stories, or maybe two versions of the same theory. One goes that his best works are organized around triumvirates - I should perhaps say triumfeminates - such as Bad Machinery and Giant Days, which allows the three main characters to bounce off each other in complicated ways. This theory goes on to say that the more straightforward, less convoluted Allison works are more likely to have two main characters (q.v., By Night) who contrast each other in a more obvious way. [1]

The other theory is more straightforward: in every generation of Allison protagonists, there is a female character who embodies chaos, around whom reality itself sometimes bends, who is a force of nature, who both the complications of the narrative and the audience love. Shelly Winters, Charlotte Grote, Esther De Groot - that kind of character. The Allison stories that feature one of those characters are the best ones.

Steeple is a contrasting-two-people story, and neither of them (yet?) have risen to the level of an Allisonian Chaos Magnet. So I might perhaps say at this point that it's not quite as zany as his best work, but that might also be said, in a different way, that it's more accessible and less likely to hare off in random directions for no obvious reasons.

This story is set in the same universe as Tackleford - though, like Giant Days, it touches other parts of that world only very lightly. We are in the small town of Tredregyn, Cornwall  - that's in the far Southwest of England, for those geographically challenged, about as far you can get from Tackleford's Yorkshire and still be in the same country. In Tredregyn, there are two churches. And, in each of those churches, there's a young woman with good intentions.

Just arriving at the local parish - I think it's CoE, and I think it's St. something-or-other's that only gets mentioned once in the book and which I can't find now - at the beginning of the book is the new parson Billie Baker, to help out the Rev. David Penrose.

On the other side of town, there is a Church of Satan, run by Magus Tom Pendennis and Warlock Brian Fitzpatrick - though I had to look up their full names online; they're just "Tom & Brian" in this book - where Maggie Warren does what she wilt as the whole of the law when she's not slinging pints at the local pub. (First lesson: God pays better than Satan. Maggie needs a side job; Billie does not. Who knew?)

Billie and Maggie meet cute when Billie arrives in town, and become friends, even though their lives are deeply opposite to each other.

So that's one major conflict: they're friends but they work for (to put it mildly) competing organizations.

The other major conflict is weird supernatural stuff, as it often is in Allison: Tredregyn is in danger from a race of aquatic monsters who want to drag the town and surroundings back beneath the sea whence it came, and apparently they could be successful in this if the local priest doesn't spend his nights punching said monsters in the cemetery. Penrose keeps asking for strong, burly assistants to aid him in biffing the salty foe, but his superiors keep sending him thin and weedy types. Like Billie, for example.

Now, those sea monsters are said to be sent from the devil, but they don't seem, at least in this first storyline, to have any connection to the Church of Satan. So it may be that the devil has legions who know naught of each other, or perhaps the sea beasties are actually the spawn of Cthulhu or Belial or some different evil entity. Or perhaps the Church of Satan is the modern, free-living kind of Satanism, and has mostly or entirely sworn off actual evil in the sense of conquering the world and dooming souls to eternal torment and suchlike.

This first volume of Steeple stories - it doesn't have a "Vol. 1" anywhere on it, though a second volume has since appeared, and a third is coming this summer - collected five comics issues, written and drawn by Allison with colors by Sarah Stern and letters by Jim Campbell. Each issue is basically a standalone story, mostly along the lines of Giant Days, so my assumption is that the hope was to do a few issues, assess, and then do more issues for years and years. That did not actually happen; subsequent Steeple stories have appeared on Allison's webcomics site, so my guess is that the American comics market continues to Be Difficult.

As I said, both Billie and Maggie are pretty sensible, though they are in one of those weird Allisonian towns. I could wish for a bit more mania and craziness from both of them, to juice the stories up, but these are early days yet. These five adventures are quirky and fun, and the status quo gets upended pretty seriously at the end, which I hope will lead to odder, stranger stories for the next batch. So far, I'm counting this as solid B+ Allison, with signs that it could ascend to the top tier quite easily. And it's entirely standalone, thus being a good entry point for new readers.

[1] Potential counter-argument: what about things like Bobbins and Scarygoround, which have larger casts around whom the plots circle? How do they fit into this schema? There I pull out a timeline, and argue that the count of Allison's central characters for a given story tend to diminish over time, and so, therefore, in about 2030 he will publish a comic featuring no central characters!

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Strange Ones by Jeremy Jusay

So: the thing I most want to dig into about this book would be a massive spoiler. Since I am not a jerk - at least, not on purpose - I'll leave that aside and discuss other things. If there seems to be something missing in this post: that's it.

The Strange Ones is a graphic novel that draws from semi-autobiographical material; creator Jeremy Jusay worked on it, on and off, for nearly twenty-five years. He started thinking about it, and putting pages out in his Karass zine, in the early '90s, soon after the time the story is set. But he didn't finish it until he got a contract for this graphic novel edition from S&S's Gallery 13 imprint three or four years ago. (The prospect of actual money does wonderful things to the artistic impulse; I greatly recommend it to anyone attempting to motivate an artist.)

It is not entirely clear if Jusay reworked or entirely replaced those early pages; the final book has ten chapters and at least the first five were published independently, the first four of them twenty-plus years ago.

It is 1993. Our viewpoint character is Anjeline, who is in her first year of college somewhere in NYC. (From one background, I'm gonna say at Pace.) She runs into a young man named Franck at a Belly concert downtown; they hang out together on the long trip home as they realize they live in the same Staten Island neighborhood. Franck is chilly, not terribly responsive: I felt at times Jusay was depicting him as if he were on the autism spectrum, but that's never spelled out. Maybe he's just quiet and bad at interpersonal relationships.

Franck is a year or two older, in an engineering program at what I think is the NYU facility in Brooklyn. (My younger son is studying engineering in the NYC area, so I have a vague sense from his college search of who the local players are.) The two have a lot in common: taste in music, fashion sense, outlook on the world. By the time Franck walks Anjeline home at the end of the first chapter, at the end of that long Belly-concert night, they're something like friends.

And that's where their relationship stays. Anjeline makes no move to get closer, and Franck, we learn a little later, is still obsessed with another girl in New Hampshire. (Parts of that plotline felt forced to me, but it turns pretty central by the end: at times I wondered if Jusay originally threw it in to have a reason why Franck and Anjeline didn't talk about dating. "I have a girlfriend up north; you've never met her" is a cliché for a reason.)

They are early-90s indy kids, to be a little reductive about it. They like the kind of stuff that got played on 120 Minutes, they wear military-surplus outerwear, they go to interesting places in NYC together to wander around and see what they can see. A secondary character supplies the title, late in the book, by saying he and his friends thought of Anjeline and Franck as "the strange ones," but...they're not particularly strange. I was in college roughly one cohort before these kids, and there were much, much stranger kids there - I was roughly this strange, and that's not strange at all.

But young people often feel strange in their own minds, and it's clear Anjeline and Franck did. It's entirely true on that level.

Each chapter is a day in their relationship, another event. Jusay sometimes signposts time passing, but it's often unclear. But, looking back, this was not very much time at all: starting in the summer, mostly taking place in the cold months of the following school year. Each chapter is a time they were together, doing something - usually fairly low-key, everyday.

There is something plottier that happens, roughly halfway through the book. (The ex-editor in me believes that, and everything forward, is the new material, and wonders how much of that was Jusay's original plan.) Going into more detail would be a huge spoiler; I refer the reader to my first paragraph.

The odd thing about The Strange Ones is that Anjeline is the viewpoint character and the one who changes, but Franck is more interesting and central - but we never really understand him, for all the talk about his great lost love. That never feels like the true explanation of "why is Franck like that."

Maybe the point is that we never really understand other people; that is certainly true.

But I also think Jusay split his autobiographical material in two: Franck got the physical details (family background, schooling, gender), and Anjeline got the artistic urge...but not a whole lot else.

So this is a good, interesting story about quirky kids. I'd still say they're not nearly as quirky as they think they are, but as I get older I think that about everyone. The plot doesn't go in the directions you'd expect, which is a positive. There's not a whole lot of plot to begin with, though: this is mostly a piece of tone and mood and feeling, about a time of life more than anything else. (And largely done much later, looking back at that time, so it's far more retrospective than it seems to be.)

Monday, April 25, 2022

Reading Into the Past: Week of April 24. 1999

Well, I screwed this up two weeks ago, so let's see if I remember how to do it. The way it's supposed to work is: if I get books in the mail, I write about them here.

If not, I hit up a RNG online, pick a week from the stretch of sixteen years when I was keeping up a reading notebook but not doing this blog yet, list the books I read then here, and try to write about them, dredging the depths of my memory. It's a silly thing, but I enjoy it.

Wait: do I enjoy it? Man, if I get that deep into my own motivations I'll never get anywhere. I don't dislike it, which is as good as I get most days.

Anyway, this time out we're hitting 1999:

Greg Bear, Darwin's Radio (typescript, 4/18)

I can't remember the last time I read a Greg Bear book, and I used to like his stuff a lot. Getting off the merry-go-round of SF changed my reading life, first immediately, and then slowly, but it has utterly changed it. (Well, it's also been more than a decade: things change anyway in fifteen years.)

I think this was one of a cluster of contemporary-set novels, closer to thriller than to the big-idea SF I always loved best from Bear, that he was doing at the time. (Writers aren't obliged to do anything their readers want - they're not obliged to do anything their editors want, or their agents want, either, but those latter folks are usually closer and louder in the discussion.)

I see this was the epidemic novel, about "something sleeping in human DNA" that "woke up" - I don't know if Bear was trying to do Crichton, but I suspect he, or someone close to him, pointed out that his skills and strengths were really close to a kind of thriller than regularly sold a bazillion copies. There was a sequel, and this one was nominated for the Hugo, so it was not unsuccessful, but I don't think Bear broke out the way some people were clearly pushing.

William Barton, When We Were Real (typescript & finished book, 4/21)

First up, not sure why I read this in two formats - my guess is that the UK edition came through while I was in the middle of it. (It was a June paperback, so it's not impossible I got the US book, though the question is why I was reading a June book in April for the SFBC. I suspect we were in one of our very-common times when there seemed to be a dearth of "good" SF, so we were checking out everything published anywhere near the right time.)

And I don't remember it at all: I know Barton mostly as a collaborator, and had forgotten I'd read any of his solo books. Looking at it now, the cover is vaguely familiar. I have only very vague recollections of it, even after looking at the blurb now - but I do think it was smart and interesting, a far-future space opera crammed full of stuff, the kind of book about post-human immortals of various types who are also doing exciting things. I bet it, or similar Barton books, would scratch that Big Idea SF itch.

Nicholas A. Basbanes, A Gentle Madness (4/22)

This was a moderately big bestseller in the day - I think this was after Patience & Fortitude, but I could have it backwards - and is one of the better books-about-people-who-love-books available. It's a history of book-collecting, more or less, though very digressive as I recall. If you're a big reader, and anywhere near my age, you've probably heard of it, and maybe picked it up in a bookstore. As I remember, it's fun, though reading it can feel self-indulgent.

Robert B. Parker, Hush Money (4/23)

One of the Parker novels; I'm going to guess the new one that year, since I was basically keeping up with them in those days. (They were all short and zippy - I could read one in barely two hours, so why not keep up with them?)

It's was 26th in the series, and even reading the plot synopsis doesn't bring it back to mind. There were about a dozen more by Parker before his death, and a further dozen by sharecroppers, since Putnam is addicted to their annual hit of Parker income. (And perhaps his heirs are, even more so.)

I've written a lot about Parker's books here, though mostly in passing. He was good, and then got really stripped down, which was either good or bad, or maybe both in turn. He sold a lot of books. Now he's dead. C'est la vie.

Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum (typescript)

I don't think I've written much about Discworld here: I avoided talking about SFF when I worked in the field, and then there were only a few years left of Pratchett. I have hit some of the pseudo-nonfiction spin-offs, since I love those kinds of books anyway and the huge popularity of Discworld has meant they were really good of their type. 

This is one of the novels from the prime era of Discworld - even more so, one of the better books in the series overall. I don't know if it's quite Small Gods-level, or Guards! Guards!, but it's close. It is damaged slightly by being really obviously a re-run of almost exactly the same plot and theme as Lords and Ladies, but Pratchett's vampires are ferocious in their own way, and I recall the end of this book is particularly strongly plotted and exciting.

Anyway, if you're reading my blog, I expect you have an opinion on Discworld. You've probably read at least a few of the books, even if you decided you hate them. So my opinion may not mean much.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Quote of the Week: Unobtrusive

Smiley himself was one of those solitaries who seem to have come into the world fully educated at the age of eighteen. Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession. The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colorful adventurers of fiction. A man who, like Smiley, has lived and worked for years among his country's enemies learns only one prayer: that he may never, never be noticed. Assimilation is his highest aim, he learns to love the crowds who pass him in the street without a glance; he clings to them for his anonymity and his safety. His fear makes him servile - he could embrace the shoppers who jostle him in their impatience, and force him from the pavement. He could adore the officials, the police, the bus conductors, for the terse indifference of their attitudes.

 - John le Carre, A Murder of Quality, p.81-82

Thursday, April 21, 2022

A Murder of Quality by John le Carre

I could start off with a meditation on the difference between a mystery and a thriller: the author calls this novel the latter in his 1989 introduction, and it is clearly the former. But his career bent towards thrillers, of a particular sort, in the years afterward, and authors always use words in idiosyncratic ways when describing their own work. So what would be the point?

But this is a mystery novel, of a fairly conventional type at the time it was written (1961), and one that is now loosely related to a much longer series of novels that are not mysteries, even though, amusingly, this is exactly the kind of book that regularly leads to a series of books of this type.

A Murder of Quality was the second novel published as by John le Carre - the author's real name was David Cornwell, and that was never terribly secret. It followed a similar short mystery novel, Call for the Dead, which I haven't read, and was followed by The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which supplied the bend I mentioned above, and which set the tone (and bestseller status) for the rest of le Carre's long career. (I read Spy almost a decade ago, and wrote a little about it at the end of a monthly round-up.)

I've said this is very much a mystery novel; it's also very English. English of a school that I think was already old if not actively dying in 1961. I have to admit I don't have the background to make clear some major aspects of the text: all of the social assumptions that people in this world make and live every day, from the importance and workings of a "great school" to the cultural markers of the Church of England and the Baptist Chapel. (And even why it's called "Chapel" almost exclusively in this book, with the identifier "Baptist" only being mentioned once, very late.) There's also a deeply closeted homosexual, and references to a crime committed years ago that may have been a homosexual act - or may have been any serious interpersonal crime up to murder; it's talked about that vaguely.

It is the early 1960s. It is mostly set at a fictional "great school" - for Americans, or anyone else not in this world, think the media image of Eton or Harrow, and know we're all missing massive amounts of nuance - called Carne, set in the town of that name somewhere vaguely out in the English countryside, a very long train ride from London.

It begins in a deeply English way: the spinster editor of a small, unprofitable, and vaguely religious magazine receives a letter from a subscriber asking for advice and expressing worry that her husband is going to kill her. The editor is inclined to act because the subscriber won a cooking contest in the magazine the year before: she is one of them. And so the editor asks an old friend from the war to make a discrete inquiry, because this doesn't quite look like the sort of thing for the police.

That old friend is George Smiley, who was the central character of le Carre's previous novel and eventually becomes something like the central character of his series of spy novels. He and the editor both worked "in intelligence" during the war; what that means is alluded to here, but never explained in any detail. Smiley calls up the head of a Carne house who he knows slightly; the head's brother was a co-worker during the war and is now dead.

And, of course, Smiley learns the woman has just been murdered, and he needs to go to Carne, ostensibly on behalf of the religious magazine, and poke around until he solves the murder. He needs to do this, Doylistically, because that's the novel, but the Watsonian reason is explicitly to show the flag for the magazine to a family that has supported it since the year dot.

The poking and solving are the bulk of this short novel: Smiley is the quiet, observant sort of sleuth, letting others talk and maneuvering himself into positions where he can talk, and more importantly listen to, all of the major players. That's the plot, but the book is about the atmosphere, the social attitudes, how the masters interact with each other and their wives. (The wives are very secondary, and I don't remember a single positive true thing said about any of them.)

As I said, I can't tell you the cultural significance of all those details, but le Carre has a relentless eye and a cutting pen; the book is full of interesting insights and memorable moments about people entirely alien to all of my experience. This may not be much like his later books, but it's a good murder mystery, specific about a time and place, with a strong viewpoint and tight, excellent prose.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Beasts of Burden: Neighborhood Watch by Dorkin, Thompson, Dyer, Dewey, Mignola and others

It's an odd thing: while actually reading a Beasts of Burden book, it's entirely plausible - my disbelief is reasonably suspended. But both before and afterward, in retrospect, it all seems silly and I struggle to write about it in a non-dismissive way.

If that tone sneaks in, I don't really mean it. But there is something inherently goofy about the whole series, and I do have to acknowledge that.

As seen previously in the original Beasts of Burden (later subtitled "Animal Rites," har de har har), and seen later in the follow-up series Wise Dogs and Eldrich Men, all animals can talk to each other and some animals have magical skills and abilities.

I don't know if series creator Evan Dorkin meant it this way, but domesticated animals (dogs and cats so far) are on the side of Good, and wild animals (rats, corvids, some more exotic monsters) are on the side of a quite Lovecraftian Evil. The forces of Evil are led by the usual extradimensional entities in the final extent, but usually an evil human (alive or currently dead) in the immediate situation. [1]

The Good animals do coordinate with humans, some of the time, and there's a long tradition of partnership, man and dog, but the dogs are fully capable of battling eldritch menaces without the aid of opposable thumbs. So the Beasts of Burden stories are mostly about dogs running around the woods around Burden Hill, Pennsylvania, barking at and biting monsters to save at least this small corner of the world from the Many-Angled Ones. I should add that they do have mages as well: a couple of the animals here can cast spells, but most of them are just the standard somewhat-stronger-tougher-and-longer-lived-than-normal.

Neighborhood Watch is the miscellaneous collection of the series; it gathers all of the smaller and shorter series that came out in between the original series and Wise Dogs. So we have a couple of single-issue stories, a two-part epic, several anthology stories that were later stuck together into one comic book, and a crossover with Hellboy.

Hm, I may have discovered why I'm having trouble taking this seriously. When Hellboy wanders through one of your stories and puts a main character in his pocket, showing that what are massive supernatural threats to you are no big deal to him, the overall universe loses a certain amount of tension. Sure, these dogs might fail to stop any particular nasty thing, but that just means Hellboy or one of his crew will have to come in and quickly mop up. Sad, but not apocalyptic.

Anyway, these are miscellaneous stories, about (mostly) the same main cast as the other stories. Dorkin wrote or co-wrote all of them; Mike Mignola co-wrote the Hellboy story (semi-obviously), Sara Dyer co-wrote one other story. Art is by either Jill Thompson, the co-originator of the series, or Benjamin Dewey, who took over for a lot of this stuff and then did Wise Dogs. Lettering is credited to Jason Arthur and Nate Piekos: I don't think they worked on the same stories, but I can't tell you if it lines up as neatly as Arthur lettered Thompson and Piekos did Dewey.

And, as I said up top, I enjoy reading these stories even though I am in no way an animal person, particular a domesticated animal person. I suspect the people who really like them are much more heavily invested than I am, but that's fine: we all like and react differently to different things. If you want comics about dogs fighting supernatural evil, I don't know of any better option.

[1] Thinking far too deeply about it, I would love to see a series with the opposite premise: dogs and cats are the villains, because they have been tainted by human evil, and badgers or foxes or opossums or maybe raccoons are the heroes. Actually, yes, raccoons, maybe with corvids as advisors: that's the one I want.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Fante Bukowski by Noah Van Sciver

I have to start by proclaiming my hipster bona fides; Fante Bukowski would insist on it. But I'm a middle-aged white guy who lives in the suburbs, with a wife and grown sons and a 401(k).

So all I got, I think, is that I read the original first book of Bukowski's exploits - 2015's Fante Bukowski - instead of the newer, fancier omnibus collecting all three books about him to date. It would have been better if I'd read the original Fante in a battered paperback, bought in a bus depot somewhere in the Dakotas, but I did at least get it for free, reading it digitally without paying anyone for the privilege. [1]

Noah Van Sciver has been telling stories in comics form about this guy for nearly ten years now; Fante Bukowski has a lot of short pieces that add up to the whole, which could have appeared separately - the book doesn't say, but my guess is that at least a few of them did.

So, then: who is Fante Bukowski? He's a big mess of a self-delusional wanna-be, a sweaty bearded dude - very deeply that kind of self-assumed-to-be-world-conquering white dude, though Van Sciver doesn't emphasize that he's very much of a type - in his mid-20s and sure in the way only completely wrong people can be that he's destined to be a great, famous writer.  His real name is, or was, Kelly Perkins: he changed it for the usual self-aggrandizing reasons. [2]

Bukowski lives in a cheap motel, types on a manual typewriter, and rages eternally against "jocks," the people who run the world, get all the good things, and can interact with other people smoothly. (That's a good character touch: it emphasizes how young Bukowski is, and how still caught up in that high-school mentality, without saying it obviously.) He is, we the reader assumes, as horrible a writer as he is a human being: he seems to have absolutely no interior life, no self-reflection, no distance on anything at all. All he has is his naked desire to be famous, like a million air-guitarists and hairbrush singers and back-of-the-door-mirror dancers.

I think the core joke of the series is that Bukowski fails upward, but at this point it's still pretty pure failure. He gets a poem possibly the lowest-tier magazine possible. He meets an agent...who is an even worse human being than he is, in crass schmoozy ways. He writes a novel...which is a crude, obvious copy of a famous book, though Bukowski is apparently so stupid or deluded that he needs to be told that's what he did.

He does get a girlfriend, sort-of, more-or-less, over the course of the book. Audrey is possibly even more screwed up than Bukowski - well, she would have to be, to willingly sleep with him, right? - manic and tightly wound, with one book published and a gnawing void where the idea for her contractual second book should be.

This is almost entirely cringe comedy, with Bukowski as the cringiest of the cringe. It's well-organized, carefully marshalled cringe comedy, sure. But it's still entirely "look at this stupid deluded fool, and laugh at his folly." Again, I gather the series slides more into "and his folly illuminates all of the follies of the world," but we're not there yet in Fante Bukowski. He's not yet the idiot success whose excesses show the hollowness of all around him; he's just an idiot.

So I was amused by this, but I am not a fan of cringe: it was difficult to enjoy. Reading it feels like punching someone while he's down. More specifically: feels like punching someone who will always be down, who has no skills or ability to ever get up. And that's not something I ever want to be comfortable with.

[1] Note that I am implying that it was pirated; it was actually from the library. I'm cynical enough to assert that both of those things are equally hipster: the near-lie and the cheap workaround.

[2] This is where I lose all of those carefully hoarded hipster bona fides. I'm sure I'd heard about John Fante at some point, but "Fante" rang no bells until I googled "Fante Bukowski" and was reminded. At least I knew who the original Bukowski was.