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.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/16/22

One book this week, which is my Platonic ideal: enough to be its own post, little enough to not take much time and to give that one book the maximum attention.  It did come in the mail; it is a new book sent to me by a long-suffering publicist.

The book is Born for Trouble by Joe R. Lansdale, subtitled "The Further Adventures of Hap and Leonard." It was published in trade paperback by Tachyon on March 21, or at least that was the plan: with all of the supply-chain drama this past year I'm not sure if I got this uncorrected proof after the real book was published, or if everything has been shifted back a bit. Either way: it's new, and the usual sources for books will sell it to you right now. (I write this Easter Morning, and the biggest one says it could get me this book today if I order within a little more than an hour.)

Hap and Leonard are Lansdale's most famous characters, appearing in a long series of novels since 1990's Savage Season and several previous collections of stories (most, maybe all, of them from Tachyon). I have read precisely none of those stories, nor have I seen any of the TV show based on the series that was on the air a few years back. So I have no personal connection here: nothing only I could tell you.

This is a very popular series by a well-respected, sui generis writer: I can tell you that. This probably isn't the place to start the series, but there's about a dozen novels, all of which seem to still be in print, and my guess is either Savage Season or Mucho Mojo (the second one) would be great entry points.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Quote of the Week: A Good Author, As Authors Go, and, As Authors Go....

There are many reasons writers switch publishers. Money certainly is one of them: When a writer or his agent wants more than the publisher thinks is prudent to pay, or another publisher has flashed bigger bucks. When a writer doesn't feel that his publisher really believes in him. When a writer feels that a change of publisher might change his luck. When a writer is having a mid-career crisis and just needs to make changes in his life, which often involves changing spouses as well as publishers, Sometimes it works out well - the change revitalizes the career. Inevitably, when a writer jumps ship, particularly when a friendship has grown up, the abandoned editor feels aggrieved. It's hard to convince a colleague (or oneself) that it's not personal - that a writer's chief concern is, and should be, protecting himself and his books as he sees fit. If the editor and publisher don't provide that sense of security, they're not doing their job, which is first, last, and always a service job: What we're there for is to serve the writer and the book. That doesn't mean I haven't been stung when an author I valued moved on.

 - Robert Gottlieb, Avid Reader, p.176

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Avid Reader by Robert Gottlieb

I am in no way an unbiased observer here: let me say that up front. I've been to the circus, spent some time in a side ring, and got left behind when it decamped to the next town at a time when I thought I was a valuable part of the troupe. Bob Gottlieb was one of the biggest ringmasters around, and here's he's talking about all of his favorite acrobats and clowns and lion-tamers - OK, so in this metaphor he would be running a different circus, but you get what I'm saying.

Avid Reader covers roughly sixty years in the world of publishing, with some side-trips into other aspects of Gottlieb's life. It was published in 2016, and Gottlieb began, as the assistant to the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, in 1955. (As often happens in publishing - the same thing hit me on a much smaller scale - he was quickly thrown into work on a higher level just because he was there and willing when the work needed to be done.) It's divided into a few big chapters, which each seem to be attempting to run somewhat chronologically but tend to blur that with the usual publishing-lovey stuff about how wonderful X was, leading to talk about how X was like Y who was also a joy to work with, and how can I forget Z, the greatest dosh-distimer of her generation!

Those chapters are, before I forget: Reading (early life), Learning (school, college, his first marriage), Working: Simon & Schuster, Working: Alfred A. Knopf, Working: The New Yorker, Working: Knopf Redux, Dancing, Writing, Living. The last three are more general, summing up other aspects of Gottlieb's life that don't as directly pertain to his central career: he was on the board of both City Ballet (in NYC) and Miami City Ballet, and became a ballet critic late in life. He also started writing non-fiction books, mostly film biographies, late in life. And he managed to do some living outside of working nearly all hours of a seven-day week - he in fact is still active as I write this, nearing his ninety-first birthday, with a biography of Garbo published last year and reportedly still editing some things for Knopf while sitting waiting for Robert Caro to deliver his next volume of the LBJ biography.

The center of the book covers the years he ran things: Editor-in-Chief of S&S, Publisher of Knopf, Editor-in-Chief of The New Yorker in the tumultuous transition years between the guy an entire world seems to call "Mr. Shawn" and Tina Brown. Those years ended twenty years before the book came out: this is mostly a memoir of the late '50s through the very early '90s. (Gottlieb's running-things days overlapped with my own publishing career almost not at all.)

I don't want to say I hate-read this book. Gottlieb has always been a hard worker and a passionate advocate for good writing and stories - and he's very clear in this book that's he's not a snob, as people that hit his level in publishing generally aren't: he likes books, and always wanted to find, edit, publish and push books that are good of their kind, without as much concern about what kinds those were.

But he's also such a lovey. He does have a funny quick introductory Note basically pre-apologizing for that, admitting that he's going to talk about people he knew and what they did together, so there will be a lot of names dropped. But he more than lives up to that in the rest of the book, in a near-Hollywood-style list of wonderful people who did great things that were super-successful.

The bulk of Avid Reader are those long, trackless chapters about S&S and Knopf and The New Yorker - I note, idly, that there never has been any accepted short way to refer to that very snooty magazine - that cram years of long days and lots of activities into name-clotted lists of stuff. Occasionally a section pops out because it's that big, notably in the early days at S&S (Catch-22 and The American Way of Death in particular). But Gottlieb is almost always relentlessly positive, with a very few muted slight criticisms of just a few people who are probably mostly dead by now anyway.

So, for a book about a guy who was at the center of a lot of publishing for more than half a century, Avid Reader is very light and puffy. Everything was a success, everyone was wonderful, the elephants never shit in the middle of the ring. I spent enough time in that world not to believe that view of things - I know how it's manufactured to public consumption - so I am amused but not convinced.

Gottlieb does seem to have had a great time, though, even as his repeated protestations that the giant piles of money were always thrust upon him by his employers ring exceptionally hollow. And I wonder if there were rumors about his personal life that he "addressed" here - there's an awful lot of really close relationships with women, several of whom he talks about traveling with repeatedly over the years. Also, his second wife was ten years younger than him, and they seem to have first met when she was in her early teens: it seems to have all worked out in the end, but I do have to wonder about that - both the living of it, and bringing it back up fifty years later in a memoir.

All in all, this is a book in which Gottlieb seems to be trying to cram everything he did that he wants to remember, or be remembered for. It is primarily a memoir of publishing, with the other material stuffed in at beginning and end, since his life was mostly spent in publishing. Readers will appreciate it depending on how much they first care about the things that Gottlieb did, and, on perhaps a reverse scale, how much they already know about those things.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Fowl Language: The Struggle Is Real by Brian Gordon

If something works, you do it again. Brian Gordon's Fowl Language comics - originally appearing online starting in 2013, and ramping up after he lost his cartooning-for-Hallmark-Cards job a couple of years later - were a hit online, and then a hit in their first book form, Fowl Language: Welcome to Parenting.

So, a year later, Gordon's book publisher, Andrews McMeel published a second collection of the Fowl Language strips, Fowl Language: The Struggle Is Real. (For those counting on their fingers, that would be in 2017.)

It's not entirely clear if the books reprint all of the strips, or reprint them in order - Andrews McMeel has been doing comic strips in book form for a long time, so I trust they know how to do this right, but this is not a continuity strip in any way. The only real markers of time passing would be the age of the kids, and, well, they're ducks to begin with. Gordon might well draw them as small hellions for another decade, even as they act like tweens and then teenagers, just because that's funnier.

So this second book is very much like the first: the kids are mostly in the same life-stage (very young, in their very first school years, the years when they scream and run around for no reason all of the damn time), and the attitude and style are still the same time.

The format has settled down a bit: nearly everything here is that odd Internet main-comic-and-then-a-bonus-panel format, with the main comic on one page and the bonus panel, typically an afterthought or secondary punchline, on the next page. I read this digitally, so each page was on its own, but the book is laid out with the main comic on a left-hand (even-numbered) page and the bonus on the right, so Gordon is not trying to make it a similar "reveal" to how bonus panels work online.

Again, it's the same kind of jokes and humor as the first book, and the kids are still in the same life-stage: small children are exhausting, demanding, and at least borderline insane, with demands and passions that appear and disappear in a second but are all-encompassing while they last. And the father character has to deal with them, and swears more than is typical for "funny-kid" humor.

It's durable stuff, and Gordon has a good cartoonist's eye to make it work, both in his precise writing and his expressive drawing. (He did make cartoons for Hallmark for nearly two decades; he might not have done public-facing stuff with his name on it, but he's been doing humor in public for a long time and has the chops to prove it.)

Like any book of cartoons, you need to both want a book of cartoons (they're fun and breezy and may seem expensive for the time you spend reading them) and want cartoons about this (if you're aggressively child-free, this is not for you). But if you do, and if you do, Gordon, again, is good at this and makes a lot of jokes that land really well. I also still think there's a potential (and maybe actual; I haven't checked) merchandise empire in his single-image comics - lots of these would be great as posters or T-shirts or similar.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Big Mushy Happy Lump by Sarah Andersen

Some days, I just want to read something light and funny, and I don't really worry about whether there will be anything meaningful to say here about that book.

Right now, for example. Yesterday I read Big Mushy Happy Lump, the second collection of the  "Sarah's Scribbles" strip - which has appeared online for close to a decade, though I don't think it's ever been entirely regular like a newspaper-style strip - by Sarah Andersen. The book itself came out in 2017; she's had two more collections of the strip since then.

I've seen Andersen's cartoons, here and then, but you can tell from my vagueness that I'm not really sure where and how she posts new strips - Instagram? multiple social services? originally some blog-like site but now something run by the Andrews McMeel juggernaut? - and that I am not a regular reader of her stuff. 

I like comics collected into books; what can I say. I read a bunch of daily comics in various formats, but I also like just dropping into a big bunch of new-to-me material by one person.

I did read the first collection, Adulthood Is a Myth, a couple of months ago, and liked it a lot. This post is the result: when you read something you like, in a reasonably well-organized world, you can then go back and read more by that person and also like that other thing.

BMHL is mostly more comics, each laid out on one or two pages (mostly one), often around the same cluster of concerns and issues as the first book: Andersen is small, often cold, more than a little neurotic, introverted, goofy, and the kind of young that means "still figuring out how to be me and an adult at the same time." This book also sees a bunch of gender-related cartoons; Andersen draws her uterus as a - fairly nasty, I must admit - character in several strips, and there's also some modern, mildly feminist takes on women's lives. It's all presented as jokes, of course, so people worried about getting "woke cooties" on themselves can probably still read it. (But fuck those guys, anyway.)

There's also a section of somewhat Allie Brosh-esque pieces at the end - slightly longer, a bit more introspective, but still mostly goofy and light-hearted. Andersen clearly thinks she's got problems, and would probably say everyone does, but she's not either doing a poor-me act or anatomizing the details of how she thinks like Brosh does. Still, it's good to see gags and longer pieces that don't just aim at that vague "universality" - Andersen is a specific person, a woman in particular, of a specific age in a particular time and place, and her humor comes from that, not from trying to do "wow! boyfriends are strong to open jars but also clueless about birthdays! Amirite!" generic humor.

And, most importantly: this stuff is all pretty funny. Andersen draws herself really well for her style of humor - even before this book, the cartoon Andersen was clearly a "big mushy happy lump." So: specific, funny, light without being flyaway. This is good stuff by a very talented creator who I hope can keep doing interesting comics for fifty more years.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Reading Into the Past: Not Today

So, I was working on a "Reading Into the Past" post, and first I noticed I'd hit the same week twice before, which was not a good thing. (Showing my work: post from 2007, post from 2011.)

And then I noticed I was working on the wrong week - as in, the week of March 11, not April - after I was mostly done.

So I'm calling a mulligan; I'm clearly not doing this right today, so it's time to stop.

Friday, April 08, 2022

Quote of the Week: Hard Conversations

So I wrote the letter, got my fiver, and came back to Wimbledon to try and rebuild my shattered life. Because you can readily see, Corky, that I was up against it in no uncertain manner. Aunt Julia would be back before long, and would want to see her brooch, and, though I'm her own flesh and blood, and I shouldn't be surprised if she had dandled me on her knee when I was a child, I couldn't picture her bearing with anything like Christian fortitude the news that I had pawned it in order to buy a half-share in a dead dog.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, "The Level Business Head," in Lord Emsworth and Others, p.251

Thursday, April 07, 2022

In Search of Peter Pan by Cosey

Some titles are meant to be taken literally; this is not one of them. Peter Pan is not a character in this story, and no one is searching for Peter Pan the person. Or for any fantastic element, actually.

But Peter Pan is also a metaphor - though usually a metaphor for a certain kind of man-child who refuses to grow up, which is not the case here - and that is much more relevant.

Cosey's graphic novel In Search of Peter Pan is set in the remote Valais Alpine village of Ardolaz, in the late 1920s. The British writer Melvin Z. Woodworth - he's of recent Serbian ancestry, which will be important to the plot - is vacationing there, hoping to find inspiration for his next work. He is of course late with that book, with letters from his agent and editor hounding him and threatening dire consequences if he fails to deliver. He is of course carrying a copy of J.M. Barrie's works, and reading Peter and Wendy.

He is also chasing his dead older brother, Dragan, who left for the continent to become a famous composer, and apparently succeeded, since he sent home regular payment and stories about his triumphs in the continental capitals. He died, in a pointless accident, near Ardolaz a few years back.

Melvin mostly keeps to himself in this snowy valley: skiing and hiking around, reading and drinking quietly in the bar in the evening, wandering the town to look around and chat with a few of the more colorful locals. The reader realizes that he's looking for inspiration for his next story pretty quickly, and that he's also looking for traces of his brother, and perhaps the truth of Dragan's life, somewhat more slowly.

But In Search of Peter Pan is mostly about what Melvin was not looking for, but finds anyway. There are rumors of a major counterfeiting ring, which ran for many years, shut down suddenly, and may have started again. There are ominous rumbles from the snowpack higher up the mountain, and talk in the village that they will all be evacuated ahead of an apocalyptic avalanche....sometime soon. There's a gorgeous, mysterious young woman who he sees bathing naked in a high-mountain hot spring. Someone is playing the piano in the big old hotel, late at night, and slipping away before anyone else arrives.

All of that is related. All of that circles around the mysteries of Dragan, and of the local outlaw Baptistin, who Melvin aids on the spur of the moment at the beginning of the story and who is key to the counterfeiting ring.

There is an avalanche. There is an evacuation. Melvin does meet the mysterious naked woman - that's what mysterious naked women are for in fictions by men, part of the rewards for figuring out mysteries and solving plots - and he does learn both what Baptistin has been doing and the true story of his brother's life. There is a happy ending.

Melvin manages to square the circle of being both a very, very respectable man in a respectable classy occupation and also a master of derring-do criminality, getting all of the benefits and none of the detriments of both sides. I also could quibble that the ending may be slightly rushed, and a little too much of "and then Melvin got all of the good things in the world, all at once, because he's the hero."

In Search of Peter Pan is atmospheric and evocative: Cosey is good at both long stretches of dialogue and at entirely silent pages. This is a deeply enjoyable story with real depth to it, marred only slightly by some pretty blatant male wish-fulfillment.

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Black Hammer '45 by Jeff Lemire, Ray Fawkes, and Matt Kindt

It's Black Hammer time again, baby!

This book collects a basically standalone story set in the same universe as the cluster of superhero stories mostly set in the present day - I've most recently hit The Quantum Age - four comics issues that were collected into this book in 2019 soon after their original publication.

This time out, series creator Jeff Lemire just co-plotted with Ray Fawkes, who wrote the script. And new-to-the-series creator Matt Kindt is the artist, with some pin-ups (sorry, "chapter breaks") by other hands. Those are three of the very best American comics-makers of their generation, three thoughtful and skillful men whose time is usually spent on weightier matters than "Hey! What is the Blackhawks were actually Black?"

Spoiler alert! That's the whole point here. Like everything else in the Black-Hammer-verse, Black Hammer '45 is made up of scavenged pieces of old superhero comics stories, re-arranged to tell very much the same kind of stories in ways that will not get Jeff Lemire sued by the suits at (most often) Warner. As usual, I am baffled that grown men think this is the best use of their limited time and professional skills, but I've come to realize that a lot of people like stories of punching in spandex vastly more than I ever have.

We do get a very loose frame story, set seventy years later - basically the same "present day" as the other comics, for the continuity nerds who are the assumed audience - but that's mostly there to signpost that not all of the characters survived the main story. That main story is The Last Flight of the Black Hammer Squadron: I may slightly overdramatize it but only by giving it that title.

It is April of 1945. American forces (oh, and maybe other Allies, but who cares about them?) are pushing East towards the borders of Germany. Meanwhile, Soviet (boo! hiss! they may be our allies now but we know they won't be for long!) forces are doing the same from the West. As usual in a four-color universe, it seems that all of the events of the real-world war happened, plus a lot of superhero-fighting as well on top of it, and we get some quick single-panel flashbacks to show what the Black Hammer Squadron, and the more conventionally superheroic Liberty Squadron, have been up to for the past three years.

The BHS - my apologies; I just can't keep typing out the full title - is made up of three pilots and their mechanic, all of whom are what the "Who's Who" of this universe would term "of above-average athletic ability and skill in both hand-to-hand and aerial combat" while sniffing that they possess "no true super-powers." The head is Captain Hawthorne, sole survivor of the three brothers who made up the original BHS. The other two pilots at the end of the war are Jean-Paul, who is both our narrator and very, very obviously French in the manner of Blackhawk comics, and Li, who doesn't get a lot of background but who, from his name, I assume is Chinese. In a stunning break from their Blackhawk models, Li is not presented in any deeply racist way at any time.

The mechanic might have a name. If he does, I missed it. He only gets a couple of lines, and is left back at base for the vast majority of the book.

This Last Mission is to save the Greenbaum family - dad scientist, mom scientist, son probably-not-a-scientist-yet (but I would bet dollars to donuts he's one of the first Science Heroes! of this universe around about 1961) - who are being held in a Nazi compound (commanded by what seems to be a werewolf for no obvious reason I caught) that is So Secret It Doesn't Even Have a Name! [1]

Also making a beeline for The Compound So Secret Everyone Knows About It are the giant robot mechs of the Soviet Red Tide, led by the usual Plucky Young Woman Who Has Seen Great Tragedy, Since Russia Is The Land of Great Tragedy. (Forgive me if I don't dig out her name: she's there to be Russian, to shoot missiles at Nazis, and to fail at her mission since she's in conflict with Americans.)

Also also in the mix is the Ace of All Aces of All Aces, Ghost Hunter, who has racked up more confirmed kills than there have been days of aerial combat so far during the war. He also, inevitably, was the killer of Hawthorne's two brothers, so this is not only the Last Mission, but, even more importantly, This Time It's Personal.

Do the BHS make it to the unnamed compound? Do they battle Ghost Hunter there? Does the Red Tide get destroyed by the Ghost Hunter to show how badass he is? Are there battles in the sky and on the ground? Do characters we know from the other Black Hammer stories make Important Cameo Appearances? Do the clichés fall like rain upon the battlefield?

Dear Reader, you know they do.

Matt Kindt's scratchy, determinedly anti-heroic art style is kind of an odd choice here, but he's done a lot of WWII-adjacent stuff, so maybe that's it. I always like his art, because it's organic and specific - no one else draws like him - but it's not what you'd expect in a story of the Black Blackhawks and their Epic Battles With Nazi Aces and Giant Soviet Robots.

As always, I enjoy Black Hammer stories for close to the complete opposite reasons the creators expect: they are so obvious, so dumb, so silly. Nothing else in the world shows the core decadence and pure Kabuki nature of contemporary superhero comics the way Black Hammer does. It is impressive in its purity, its utter commitment to the bit.

[1] Int. Day. Berlin. Bunker.

HITLER: Achtung! Give me a report on the secret compound!

HIMMLER: Yes, Fuhrer! Early tests on the Odinspear are promising...

HITLER: Nein! Not that secret compound! The one outside Vienna!

HIMMER: West of Vienna or South of Vienna?

HITLER:  West, you schweinhund!

HIMMER: Oh, right, the Greenbaums.

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

The Muse by Zidrou and Oriol

If that cover image trips any warnings on whatever computing device you're reading this on, I apologize - but it is the cover for this book.

The Muse is an album-length graphic novel, written by Zidrou, drawn by Oriol, translated by Matt Madden, and published - only electronically; there's no print version in English - by Europe Comics a few years back. It's the story of a painter over a hundred years ago, as told by a painter about eighty years ago, doubly distanced.

In the very last days of the nineteenth century, Vidal Balaguer was one of the most talented of the painters of Barcelona - but also in the worst troubles. His father has recently disowned him, so his debts are mounting. The woman who was both his best model and his lover, Mar, has mysteriously disappeared and the police suspect he may have killed her. And the one painting he might be able to sell is his masterpiece of Mar - the one that is the cover of this book - which he can't bear to part with.

One of his friends tells this story, to another model, forty years later, in a frame story that disappears for most of the book and is not important at the end: it's a way in rather than a full frame, and I'm not completely convinced it actually adds anything to the core story of Balaguer. I even lost track of which one of the 1899 friends this old painter was supposed to be, since he doesn't do anything important in the Old Days.

Balaguer is beleaguered - maybe the word is similar in Spanish? I don't know if this is deliberate, on Zidrou's part or Madden's. Things are disappearing from his apartment. Creditors are circling, threatening to take everything he has. A police detective threatens even more.

There is an explanation, and this reader guessed it - and Balaguer's way out of his situation - much sooner than the book revealed it. I can't say if that is a common reaction; I've been that kind of reader for thirty years or more, always picking apart the stories I encounter and predicting where they will go next. I'm not always right; I was this time.

Oriol has suitably painterly art for this story; the spaces are deep and rich and evocative, the people subtly color-coded, the action mostly interior. Zidrou gives it a leisurely, talky script - these are mostly painters with time to waste in cafes or scraping paint onto a board - but reading it electronically (on a tablet screen, in my case) makes the balloons and lettering smaller than I would have preferred.

I did not find this a surprising story, or a profound one, though I did enjoy the telling. Zidrou may have aimed at surprise or profundity; I can't say. In the end, there's no real sense of why this happened to Balaguer rather than any of the other painters in his circle: was he better? was it his connection to Mar? was it just the luck and frisson of a moment?

Muses are fickle by nature, of course. Maybe that's the answer.

Monday, April 04, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of April 2, 2022

Hey, remember how I said a couple weeks ago that I ordered some books, and then ordered those books to read first? No? Well, I guess I don't expect you to care that deeply. But this week that somewhat-delayed package arrived, so I've got some stuff I ordered in early March.

(Funny story: I decided to check tracking on March 26th, and noticed that it had a bunch of activity March 8-10, right after the order, but the last thing showing was that it had arrived in a medium-sized city near me. Suddenly, after checking it, more tracking details started appearing that very day, and it showed up on my doorstep  two days later. Makes me wonder if the shippers get notified of tracking inquiries and prioritize those packages.)

Bad Machinery, Vol. 10: The Case of the Severed Alliance by John Allison - This is the latest and last of the books collecting Allison's webcomic of the same name, which ran from from 2009 to a date I can't find anymore. (They're all on GoComics now, rather than Allison's original site, so my guess is 2016ish.) Read it on GoComics, check out my post on the first book, go crazy and dig into the Scarygoround or Bobbins archives if you want a deeper Allison cut, but, if you like comics with humor or Britishness in them at all, read Allison.)

Rain Like Hammers by Brandon Graham - This is a standalone SFnal graphic novel by Graham, who does oddball mostly SF-themed comics with lots of quirky puns and attractively idiosyncratic art. (I get the sense he has a very specific following, which I'm mostly not part of, and may have an equally large number of detractors, but I've never had the energy to investigate. He does interesting comics that I read every few years; that's good enough for me.) See my post on Multiple Warheads, which I think is his best-known book.

Trese, Vol. 3: Mass Murders by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldismo - As you might be able to guess, this is the third in the series of urban fantasy comics about a woman who's called in by the Manila (and maybe other Philippine jurisdictions, but I haven't seen that yet) police when there are quirky, weird, supernatural cases. Both solid urban fantasy and a strong extension of the genre by using really specific, creepy Filippino folklore, with taut stories by Tan and world-class art from Baldismo. See my post on the first book, as published in the US last year.

Blubber by Gilbert Hernandez - Gilbert is the crazy Hernandez brother, in the best possible way. Even his relatively straightforward comics do weird things with presentation and matter, like having "censorship" blocks on his panels or quirkily recursive plots that cover the same idea over and over again. This, as I understand it, is very much not straightforward: this is all the Beto sex & death & squicky fluids that don't fit anywhere else, shoved into one series of semi-random, utterly NSFW, probably occasionally horrifying, stories.

Enigma by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo - A "definitive edition" of the mid-90s Vertigo series, which was...I don't think it was a deconstruction of superhero tropes, since we'd had a dozen of those already at that point. But something in that vague storyspace: taking the stuff of childhood wish-fulfillment and trying to do a story for adults with them. I'm pretty sure I read it at the time, since I was a big Milligan fan before he went all Big Two, but I have absolutely no memory of it.

The Golden Age, Book 2 by Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa - Second half of the medievalesque fantasy story, in a fabulistic kingdom that may be about to turn modern - possibly in a good way, possibly in a horrible way. I read the first one just a couple of months ago, and was very impressed (as I always have been by Pedrosa, to be honest). 

The True Story of the Unknown Soldier by Tardi - This, I gather, is more early Tardi, following up on the American publication of his first bande dessinee, Farewell, Brindavoine, last year. (Link goes to my post on it, here.) It seems to be one album in the original French, collecting the title story and "The National Razor." I'm expecting more mid-70s nuttiness.

Looking at the whole list, it's mostly pretty weird, even for the respective creators. That wasn't my intent, but it seems to match what I'm interested in, so take it as an unconscious choice.

Friday, April 01, 2022

Quote of the Week: Crime Never Pays

The thing that poisons life for gunmen and sometimes makes them wonder moodily if it is worth-while going on is this tendency of the outside public to butt in at inconvenient moments. Whenever you settle some business dispute with a commercial competitor by means of your sub-machine gun, it always turns out that there was some officious witness passing at the time, and there you are, with a new problem confronting you.

And Lord Emsworth was in worse case than his spiritual brother of Chicago would have been, for the latter could always have solved his perplexities by rubbing out the witness. To him this melancholy pleasure was denied. A prominent Shropshire landowner, with a position to keep up in the county, cannot rub out his nieces. All he can do, when they reveal that they have seen him wallowing in crime, is to stare glassily at them.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, "The Crime Wave at Blandings," in Lord Emsworth and Others, p.44