Saturday, December 31, 2022

Quote of the Hour: You Know, That Guy

He had that kind of crumpled, worried face which is only a hair's breadth from the music halls and yet is infinitely sad; a face in which the eyes are paler than their environment, and the contours converge upon the nostrils. Aware of this, perhaps, Taylor had grown a trivial moustache, like a scrawl on a photograph, which made a muddle of his face without concealing its shortcomings. The effect was to inspire disbelief, not because he was a rogue but because he had no talent for deception.

 - John Le Carre, The Looking Glass War, p.15

Quote of the Hour: The Callipygian Muse

Their voluminous costumes rendered them of indeterminate gender, but when the chorus member nearest me fell, a great cry rose up from the audience - and it wasn't lamentation. Unsheathed by a robe that had ridden up to its owner's waist when she collapsed was a glorious, golden Greek ass, as plump as a peach in a pair of thong panties. Every eye in the theater was drawn immediately to its radiance. This was the reward for the polite schoolboys who had refused to join their restless friends in the flights up the aisle.

 - Ayun Halliday, No Touch Monkey!, p.246

Quote of the Hour: If You Don't Mind Me Sayin' So

People who tell you they're disappointed in you are full of the worst kind of shit and you can always ignore them. The stuff they say only means that you're doing what you want to do, not what they want you to do. It's the people who really do care about you who will never tell you when you've hurt them.

 - Josh Ritter, The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All, p. 145

Quote of the Hour: A Powerful Thirst

The advice one would give to every young man starting life is, on arriving in Market Blandings on a warm afternoon, to go to the Emsworth Arms. Good stuff may be bought there, and of all the admirable hostelries in the town it possesses the largest and shadiest garden. Green and inviting, dotted about with rustic tables and snug summerhouses, it stretches all the way down to the banks of the river; so that the happy drinker, already pleasantly in need of beer, may acquire a new and deeper thirst from watching family parties toil past in row-boats. On a really sultry day a single father, labouring at the oars of a craft loaded down below the Plimsoll mark by a wife, a wife's sister, a cousin by marriage, four children, a dog, and a picnic basket, has sometimes led to such a rush of business at the Emsworth Arms that seasoned barmaids have staggered beneath the strain.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, Heavy Weather, pp. 153-4

Quote of the Hour: There Were Giants in the Earth in Those Days - No, Really!

More and more, I sense that focused reading, the valuing of the kind of scholarship achieved only through years spent in libraries, is no longer central to our culture. We absorb information, often in bits and pieces and sound bites; but the slow, steady interaction with a book, while seated quietly in a chair, the passion for story that good novels generate in a reader, what has been called the pleasure of the text - this entire approach to learning seems increasingly, to use a pop phrase, "at risk." Similarly, even a basic knowledge of history, classical mythology, and the world's literatures now strikes many people as charmingly antiquarian. Or irrelevant. Or just sort of cute.

 - Michael Dirda, "Millennial Readings," in Readings, p.215

Quote of the Hour: What Will You Be Remembered For?

I'm not ashamed of this life I've made for myself. Or at least that's what I thought, until this Hall of Fame thing started up. It saddened me in a way I hadn't anticipated. I kept imagining what would happen if my old high school started a Hall of Fame and my name came up for consideration. What would people say? She's an Assistant Principal. She helped her mom when she got sick. That wasn't gonna cut it. Nope. Not good enough. No Hall of Fame for you, Tracy Flick.

You're a nobody.

 - Tom Perrotta, Tracy Flick Can't Win, p.98

Quote of the Hour: Secrets

In the way that every American has his secret America in him, he or she is marked by that secret. In my secret America I once wrote something I should not have. It had a devastating impact on someone's life and vocation. The ramifications of it were such that even now I cannot say anything about it, who it was or when it was or where; for that matter, having just told you that it happened, I must now deny that it happened at all. I occasionally have a dream in which I meet this person, years later, and the fury is still hard in this person's face. Were I to have the opportunity to go back in my life and take back one thing I have done, and though I certainly would have an array of things to choose from, the choice would nonetheless be clear. The alteration or deletion, indeed, of a single word might have changed everything. I thought at the time like all Americans that malice had to lie at the root of all evil, that if one was innocent in his intentions he was innocent in his actions. I still haven't decided what it means that no one quite believes I didn't do it on purpose. I don't think you really feel guilty about it, someone said to me about a year ago. Driving home I knew he was wrong, but I also knew it didn't matter. I knew he might as well have been right. There's malice, I believe it was said in these pages before, in the naïve act that has malicious consequences, and though I cannot say more about it here, you'll just have to take my word for it that what happened and the way it happened has everything to do with America.
 - Steve Erickson, Leap Year, p.187

Quote of the Hour: Papa Was a Rolling Stone

His marriage, unfortunately, was about the only successful event in Marcus Bierce's life. Tall, shambling, and slow to speak, he dutifully excelled at the two family distinctions: making babies and living long lives. It was the more prosaic business in between that seemed to baffle him. At various times a farmer, a shopkeeper, a property assessor, and - somewhat hilariously, given his own lifelong struggle against poverty - a county overseer of the poor, Marcus dutifully labored in the vineyards and churches of mid-nineteenth-century America.

 - Roy Morris, Jr., Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, p.10

Quote of the Hour: The Back of Beyond

Arivaipa Territory, where the sun is so hot that it will, after dissolving your flesh into grease, melt your bones as well. A territory of bronco natives and bunco artists, wild religiosos and wild horses, poison toads and rattling snakes. A hard dry place, an endless expanse of Nowhere. Why the Warlord wants to keep a thread of authority in such a goddess-forsaken place is a mystery, but the army doesn't question orders, just follows them. Thus Fort Gehenna, and a scattering of other army posts, sown like seeds across the prickly rocky dusty landscape of the remote territory.

 - Ysabeau S. Wilce, "Quartermaster Returns," in Prophecies, Libels & Dreams, pp.15-16

Quote of the Hour: Busking

On the glass platform stands Adalgiso the Apostle-Fingered, playing his viola with six fingers on each hand. He is bald, with a felt hat that does not sit quite right on his head. Beside him is Assia, the Nymph of the Phonograph., She is singing tenor, her smoke-throated voice pressing long kisses against his strings. His playing is so quick and lovely that the trains stop to listen, inclining on the rails and opening their doors to catch the glissandos spilling from him. His instrument case lies open at his feet, and each passenger who takes the Marginalia Line brings his fee - single pearls, dropped one by one into the leather case until it overflows like a pitcher of milk. In the corners of the station, cockroaches with fiber-optic wings scrape the tiles with their feet, and their scraping keeps the beat for the player and his singer.

 - Catherynne M. Valente, Palimpsest, pp.46-47

Quote of the Hour: The Transforming Man

This growing isolation and self-containment, exhibited by the other members of the unit and from which only the buoyant Riggs seemed immune, reminded Kierans of the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of all animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis. Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.

 - J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World, pp.24-25

Quote of the Hour: Exterior Decorating

Maintaining a good display of heads around the city took time and effort. For more than three hundred years, from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, there was a Keeper of the Heads who lived in the gatehouse on London Bridge, and whose job it was to arrange traitors' heads and body parts to their best effect. Heads that had become too rotten were usually thrown in the river to be replaced with new, fresh heads. Sometimes the displays were arranged symbolically. When the Scottish nobleman John of Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl was executed as a traitor in 1306, his head was placed next to Wallace's, but on a higher pole to signify his higher status.

 - Frances Larson, Severed, p.92

Quote of the Hour: The Perfect Nostrum

I have had occasion, I fancy, to speak before now of these pick-me-ups of Jeeves's and their effect on a fellow who is hanging to life by a thread on the morning after. What they consist of, I couldn't tell you. He says some kind of sauce, the yolk of a raw egg and a dash of red pepper, but nothing will convince me that the thing doesn't go much deeper than that. Be that as it may, the results of swallowing one is amazing.

For perhaps the split part of a second nothing happens. It is as though all Nature waited breathless. Then, suddenly, it is as if the Last Trump had sounded and Judgement Day set in with unusual severity.

Bonfires burst out in all parts of the frame. The abdomen becomes heavily charged with molten lava. A great wind seems to blow through the world, and the subject is aware of something resembling a steam hammer striking the back of the head. During this phase, the ears ring loudly, the eyeballs rotate and there is a tingling about the brow.

And then, just as you are feeling that you ought to ring up your lawyer and see that your affairs are in order before it is too late, the whole situation seems to clarify. The wind drops. The ears cease to ring. Birds twitter. Brass bands start playing. The sun comes up over the horizon with a jerk.

And a moment later all you are conscious of is a great peace.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves, p.48

Quote of the Hour: Pillow Musings

For the first time, I felt sadness for the glittering noblewomen who paraded through the court in their glittering satins. Sadness for Amalie, sadness for the Queen and the viscountess, victims alike to the ambitions of one pretty man.

Butchers' daughters, I believe, are permitted to marry for love, if only because there is so very little at stake; but for the daughters of the wealthy, there is too much money and influence in the business for affection to overrule calculation.

 - Walter Jon Williams, Quillifer, p.243

Quote of the Hour: As They See Us

And foe-of-convenience, the United States, barely the hope of the world, guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs, a constitution as unchallengeable as the Koran. Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with every new handgun.

 - Ian McEwan, Nutshell, p.24, as part of a catalog of all of the parts of the world and what's wrong with them

Quote of the Hour: You Can Leave Your Hat On

Mr. Lehman was a large, bulky, forceful man, inclined to breathe hard in moments of professional strain. Except for a colored shirt, his clothes were not actually loud, and yet he had the knock of making them seem so. He wore a derby hat. He always wore it. It was part of him. The most imaginative could hardly picture him bareheaded.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, Barmy in Wonderland, p.67

Quote of the Hour: Unplanned Obsolescence

One of the things Poughkeepsie could be famous for, if Poughkeepsie were famous, is abandoned factory buildings. Over the years, even over the centuries, there have been all kinds of manufacturing and industry, going all the way back to when dead whales were dragged up the Hudson River and cut up, processed, had their oil extracted, and maybe kibbled, for all I know. The whale-processing business was carried out seventy-five miles up the river from New York Harbor, because that way it was considered less likely that pirates would show up...and...steal the whales? It doesn't make sense to me, but they teach this in school. Various other products came from Poughkeepsie, such as decks of cards, underwear, and beer, and when any of the companies that made them moved or shut down, they'd just leave the factory to fall apart.

 - Daniel Pinkwater, Crazy in Poughkeepsie, pp.53-54

Quote of the Hour: Who Can Save You Now?

Reflecting on Lopez's mood, it struck me that the experience of living under a corrupt government and trying to stay honest yourself made people cynical and distrustful of authority, but at the same time self-sufficient and dependent on friends and family, because no one else would help you.

 - Paul Theroux, On the Plain of Snakes, p.104

Quote of the Hour: The Lady's Not For Clubbing

Audrey was a large woman in an extremely purple and inappropriately long dress. She was, Barbara guessed, Sidney's wife. And as Barbara watched, she began to see that there had been some kind of misunderstanding. Sidney had thought that it was a night out with one kind of lady ("the ladies," "our good lady wives," that sort of thing), but Valentine had invited Barbara on the assumption that it was another sort of night out altogether, one involving ladies but not the ladies. Presumably they had enjoyed both kinds of evening in the past, hence the confusion. The lives of married men with money were so complicated and so deceitful, the codes they spoke in so ambiguous, that Barbara wondered why this sort of thing didn't happen all the time. Perhaps it did. Perhaps the Talk of the Town was full of tables at which women of wildly different ages were sitting, all glowering at each other.

 - Nick Hornby, Funny Girl, p.31

Quote of the Hour: Man Is Full of Trouble

The stony expression on Mr Anderson's face became intensified. He might have been something Gutzon Borglum had carven on the side of a mountain. As so often wen in Mervyn Potter's society, he was trying to think who it was that he reminded himself of. Then he got it. Job. Job after he had lost his camels and acquired all those boils. Not that Job's sorrows could be compared with those of a man forced to associate with Mervyn Potter.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, Barmy in Wonderland, pp.11-12

Quote of the Hour: If You Don't Ask, You Don't Get

I looked at President Magana, and he shrugged. "This is very delicate," he said. "I have a problem there. I'm supposed to be the commander-in-chief, so if I ask him, he should tell me., But he might say he's not going to tell me, then I would have to arrest him. So I don't ask." This is in many ways the standard development of a story in El Salvador, and is also illustrative of the position of the provisional president of El Salvador.

 - Joan Didion, Salvador, p.385 in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live

Quote of the Hour: Bless This Mess

I am disheartened to learn that the place where I will be staying is a bed-and-breakfast, not a hotel. My heart sinks. That means there is probably neither television nor phone in my room. And I have very little patience for what is generally labelled "charming." In particular Country Charm. I have an intense dislike of flowered wallpaper; ditto jam of all sorts. The former is in all-too-abundant evidence when I enter the inn, and the latter, I'm sure, lies in wait somewhere in the cheery kitchen. There is a knotty pine bar off the entrance hall with a settee with several embroidered pillows: "I'd rather be golfing." "On the eighth day, God created golf." "Golfers have sex in some humorous, golf-related manner." etc. On the windowsill above, a ginger cat is bothering a stained-glass butterfly ornament as the sunlight streams through the leaded panes. It is all I can do not to cry.

 - David Rakoff, "In New England Everyone Calls You Dave," p.4 in Fraud

Quote of the Hour: What Can Be Fixed and What Can't

What Michael [Crichton] wasn't was a very good writer. The Andromeda Strain was a terrific concept, but it was a mess - sloppily plotted, underwritten, and worst of all, with no characterization whatsoever. His scientists were beyond generic - they lacked all human specificity; the only thing that distinguished some of them from the others was that some died and some didn't. I realized right away that with his quick mind, swift embrace of editorial input, and extraordinary work habits he could patch the plot, sharpen the suspense, clarify the science - in face, do everything necessary except create convincing human beings. (He never did manage to; eventually I concluded that he couldn't write about people because they just didn't interest him.) It occurred to me that instead of trying to help him strengthen the human element, we could make a virtue of necessity by stripping it away entirely; by turning The Andromeda Strain from a documentary novel into a fictionalized documentary. Michael was all for it - I think he felt relieved.

 - Robert Gottlieb, Avid Reader, p.109

Quote of the Hour: Or Perhaps a Lion-Tamer

He withdrew with bent head, and I watched him go with a pang of pity. It all seemed so hopeless, and I knew it would be futile to try to console him with any idle talk about time effecting a cure. Ernest Plinlimmon was not one of your butterflies who flit from flower to flower. He was an average-adjuster, and average-adjusters are like chartered accountants. When they love, they give their hearts for ever.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, "There's Always Golf," in Lord Emsworth and Others, p.148-9

Quote of the Hour: Vast and Cool But not Unsympathetic

I've been posting Quotes of the Week this year, all bits coming out of books I've read - I dog-eared pages as I went and then typed them in. But I've been running at an average of 2-3 quotes per book, and one quotable (text, generally - not comics) book most weeks. So I have a surplus.

So for this, the last day of the year, I'm burning off twenty-five of them, from twenty-five different books. This once, it's a Quote of the Hour. They will be very roughly in the order I read the books, so we start with Joan Didion:

The fancy that extraterrestrial life is by definition of a higher order than our own is one that soothes all children, and many writers.

 - Joan Didion, "Doris Lessing," in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, p.266

Friday, December 30, 2022

Blackwood: The Mourning After by Evan Dorkin, Veronica Fish, and Andy Fish

In the Before Times, this would have just been the next four issues of an ongoing series called Blackwood - it reads that way, and my guess is that Dorkin and the Fishes would have been happy to just keep telling a bunch of these stories in one series rather than mucking about with re-launching a new mini-series with a new title.

They might not have wanted to do it monthly, on the old chain-gang work-until-you-drop style, but that's an entirely different question.

But, in the Now Times, everything must be new, and everything must have an Issue #1, and the attention span of any comics reader is assumed - probably with good reason - to be lower than the belly of a ground sloth. So Blackwood: The Mourning After was a "brand-new" four-issue mini-series, following up the original Blackwood series and collection a couple of years later.

But it begins immediately after the ending of the previous book, and deals entirely with the fallout of the events in the previous book, and in no way is meant to stand on its own: it's not a new story, not a separate story, just the next story of this place and these people. And that's totally fine for an ongoing, though it feels a little odd in our modern mini-series world.

And it does mean that if I want to talk about any of the plot, I'm going to either utterly spoil the first book or be very, very vague. I'm going to try to err on the side of vague.

So the cover shows four people, which includes three of the four main characters of Blackwood, but not the one who SPOILER in the first book. And there's one more person, who was a secondary but important character the first time out, but has more to do here - maybe he'll turn out to be part of the Scooby Gang in the long term. And, as the title implies, someone important is dead - let me refer here to the first book, which I said started "with some old guy who just did something magically dangerous and is now dictating his last words while Something happens to him" and note that there is an funeral coming up in a couple of days, nudge nudge wink wink.

We learn a little more about the faculty of Blackwood, the college ostensibly some vague liberal-arts thing (though really really focused on anthropology as far as I can see) but secretly a training-bed for new magicians, plus "psychic researchers, alchemical engineers, occult archivists." We also see another secret magic-based organization, I.N.S.P.E.C.T., who seem to be some kind of government agency - big guns, dark suits, humorless affect, the whole works. Blackwood and I.N.S.P.E.C.T. are not on the chummiest of terms, of course, and even less so after the revelations of the new book.

An I.N.S.P.E.C.T. team is coming for that funeral, and various people are planning for the funeral and/or for secret magical rituals designed for fiendish ends, because of course they are. Our four heroes are in the middle of that, partly because of magical shenanigans in the first book, partly because they are nosy, and partly just because their are the heroes of this story, so we follow their viewpoints.

There is another big magical foofaraw at the end of this book, as there must be. A gigantic unpleasant entity is summoned from Somewhere, an evil actor gets hold of a Powerful Artifact and threatens to do Unspeakable Things, and there's a big confrontation in the college library, which is roughly as cool as you are hoping it will be. (Do I mean the confrontation, or the library itself? A bit of both.)

Like the first book, I found this zippy and fun, and this time writer Evan Dorkin has a little more time and space to start fleshing out the world, which I appreciate. Oh, it's still a thriller, so the action-plot takes precedence, and the artists (wife-husband team Veronica and Andy Fish) do good work there, with a lot of room for moody, creepy colors on top of their already pretty-darn-moody line art.

As I said, it would have been nice if this were still a world where Evan Dorkin and the Fishes - and doesn't that sound like a weird ska band? I bet Dorkin is amused by that - could do these more regularly and build their mythology more quickly. But we never get the world we want, and the world we have does have two solid Blackwood stories in it so far, so it's not all bad.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Today I Learned

...that Blogger quarantines comments - some? all? most? any it doesn't like? it's not clear - and does not actually notify the owner of the blog that it has done so.

In related news, I've just approved about a half-dozen actual comments, going back to early this year the middle of last year, and cleared out the rest of the "awaiting moderation" queue, which were actually spam as one would expect.

This insight was brought to you by a real comment on yesterday's post that I saw in my email - Blogger emails me some of the time when there's a comment, but now I realize not consistently - but did not see on the blog, and so I went to investigate. That one Blogger had triumphantly marked as spam, not even "awaiting moderation." I am not as worried about our impending AI overlords as much as I might have been a day ago.

I apologize to those who commented and didn't see it appear: it's all my fault. Your very old comments are now live, for all the good it will do any of us. I hope to check that filter more often in the future.

Oddball by Sarah Andersen

So I kinda like Sarah Andersen's cartoons, as discerning readers may have noticed [1]: she writes funny, she draws funny, and she has a quirky sensibility that means she tells goofy "I am an introvert" jokes that are familiar and relatable but not obvious. Just really good at the being-funny-in-public thing, with a distinct sensibility and viewpoint and art style.

Also, her books are short and breezy, which means they're easy to pick up on a day when you feel like reading funny cartoons and not like diving into a whole thing of a graphic novel.

So: I think I've read all of her books in the past year, and am now caught up. (They're all short, so it's not like it was difficult in any way - and, again, each one is fun and breezy and funny.) Cryptid Club, which came out about a month ago, was the most recent, and I just caught up with the fourth collection of her main "series" Sarah's Scribbles, Oddball.

This book is very much like the previous Sarah's Scribbles collections - Adulthood Is a Myth, Big Mushy Happy Lump and Herding Cats - with a little over a hundred single-page comics about a cartoon version of Sarah doing her daily-life thing, presumably just that bit more awkwardly and amusingly than the real Andersen does. If you like any of them, you'll like all of them. If you can't stand any of them - I could characterize why you don't like them, but humor is a taste, so it could be any reason - then you'll probably dislike them all.

This one is the Pandemic Book: it was published in 2021 (though there's at least one cartoon with a looming "2022" in it, so I think it came out late in '21 and some of it was done right near deadline) and some of it deals with the expected "I hate having to go out in public and see human beings, but now I am forbidden to do that and have mixed feelings" stuff. But that's a minor strain - it's mostly the same kind of jokes, focusing on the Sarah character, who as always I hope is a really exaggerated-for-effect version of Andersen herself. (If any of us were the ways we try to amusingly portray ourselves, the world would be even wackier than it is.)

Anyway. I like this. I think it's funny, and that Andersen is a big talent. I'm excited to see her do more tightly-themed books like Fangs and Cryptid Club, since I think those will give her more runway to do more complex jokes (and even story-like things, if she wants to), but her core funny comics are still swell, too. This is a good book for a day when you just want a pick-me-up.

[1] Assuming you've seen my posts about (in reverse chronological order) Cryptid Club, Herding Cats, Big Mushy Happy Lump, Fangs, and/or Adulthood Is a Myth.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The Looking Glass War by John Le Carre

This was Le Carre's second spy novel, following up The Spy Who Came in From the Cold two years later and, according to the author's 1991 introduction in this edition, both designed to be a more "realistic" view of spycraft and, in the event, not nearly the critical success Cold was.

For myself, reading The Looking-Glass War fifty-plus years later, I was struck at how much of the tone and atmosphere of Le Carre's drab London offices with their complicated security arrangements and political maneuverings has influenced Charles Stross's Laundry books. A pretty obvious point, clearly: it's not a surprise, but seeing the great originator of a style or theme always strikes differently when you're more familiar with a modern take on it. So I may see it through a lens of later books, and I apologize for that.

In that introduction, Le Carre all but declares "everyone took the ending of Cold to be romantic and tragic, so this time I tried to be even more obvious that these guys are mostly well-meaning but really bad at what they do, and what they do is destructive and pointless at the best of times, OK?" And perhaps the critics did get it, and that was why they - at least in the UK, as he makes the distinction - were less happy with a book that said their country's spies were often infighting, badly trained dilettantes rather than Flemingesque heroes.

The book takes place in the mid-60s, in "the Department," a secret service whose remit is military intelligence. "The Circus," the agency featured in most of Le Carre's books - the one George Smiley works for - is devoted to political intelligence, and reports up to a different Ministry. The two services are roughly rivals, though in a chummy British way, and the Circus has been much more successful in their quiet rivalry, with the Department shrinking in size and importance and capabilities since The War.

(Everything in Looking Glass is in reference to The War. If you don't instantly know which one, this might not be a book you can profitably read.)

We open with a Department agent in Finland. He's a desk guy from London, out in the field for the first time ever, and ill-prepared for it. A commercial airline pilot is supposed to meet him in the airport bar, quietly hand over film he just shot, of a potentially interesting site in East Germany, and then go. But the pilot is late, the airport is closing, and the agent is no good at keeping a low profile. Before long, the agent is killed in a hit-and-run, trudging back through the snow to his hotel.

So the Department needs to send another desk guy from London - the "young hotshot" of the office, in that he seems to be the only new person hired since The War - to retrieve the first guy's body, and, more importantly, that film. He is equally untrained, and various bits of bureaucratic incompetence and/or malice make his job even more difficult.

The missing film could potentially show a new Soviet missile site in East Germany, pointed West. In this just-post Cuban Missile Crisis world, that would be a serious threat to the UK and NATO, but - even more importantly to the Department - it would show that their work is actually important, give them access to the top levels of power, and drive larger budgets and scope for action for the future.

The Department is a shell of what it was during The War. Everyone knows this. It has lost all capacity for action in the field; the Circus is the only one with that expertise now. But maybe they can retrain one of their old contacts, from The War, and send him in to see, on the ground, if that missile site is real, and reclaim their glory days once again!

And maybe they can do that while begging aid from the Circus, pretending this is all a training exercise. And maybe the Department thinks the Circus believes that pretense. The Department, after all, is really out of practice at this spy stuff.

Looking Glass is divided into three sections, which get longer as they go. First the initial agent, then second guy, then a real clandestine asset inserted deep into the field. They all mean well. They all work reasonably hard. They all want to do right by their country. They are all incompetent in many ways, large and small. It will not end well.

OK - not well for the Department. The Circus will see its position substantially strengthened. And isn't that what's most important, really?

This is a dark and cynical book, which is entirely appropriate for Cold War spycraft; Le Carre invented that style and entire genre. I suspect this is the book that crystalized that stance for him, though I understand later books focus on the I think we later learn they are not "the competent ones" in this formulation, just the ones we don't see their incompetencies in this book. As is entirely appropriate for a book about spies, nearly everything important here is implied rather than told: Le Carre hints (rather heavily at times) but never spells out details.

There's a histrionic moment at the ending that's a bit too much. I can see why it's there, but it's from a different style of book, from a different kind of writer. My guess is that Le Carre learned not to do things like that in the future. Other than that, Looking Glass is as clear and cold as the Finnish winter it opens in.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Colonel Weird: Cosmagog by Jeff Lemire and Tyler Crook

I have to admit: I continue to be amazed at just how much bread Jeff Lemire can spread with so little butter (in Bilbo's phrase) over the course of his Black Hammer books. There's a resolute insistence to never ever move beyond the initial setup of the story, even in this twelfth (!) collection.

Colonel Weird: Cosmagog, is, I guess, a single-character side story - looking at the previous book, Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy, I laid out a three-part structure for the books to date, but this one manages to create its own fourth category - but, more importantly, it's a book in which absolutely nothing at all happens. [1]

Now, plenty of books can have nothing happening. Some can even have nothing happening for over a hundred pages. But doing that in a superhero story is something impressive. Cosmagog is entirely a story of Weird moping about in time and space until he remembers something we the reader always knew - but Lemire hopes we overlooked while reading this book - and then, because of that, he stops moping. 

Oh, we get moments that are new, since even Lemire can't do without that. So we see Weird at various ages - kid Randy, crew-cut '50s science hero, hippie '70s counterculture hero, crazy burnout '80s hero fighting Antigod, crazy burnout ??? hero as the "current-day" version - doing things, and he bounces among those versions of himself, semi-randomly, until there are enough pages to make this book (and, before that, the four individual issues that comprise it).

But nearly all of the things we see him do are either things we already know, like fighting Antigod or discovering the the Para-Zone. The new moments are either banal - kid Randy buys a soda! he gets bullied! - or implied by what we've already seen - hippie '70s Weird floats in place and dispenses peace and love platitudes to his adoring hippie fans!

We could have seen what the hippie version did - surely he had some goofy villains, right? We could have seen how he burned out to be the wild-haired old man of the Event. We could have even gotten moments of the strong-thewed Weird reveling in his new Para-Powers to fight '50s aliens. Weird has a lot of holes in his life-story; there's room for a lot of stories.

But Lemire, in the Black Hammer books, seems to have an allergic reaction to stories: he avoids them whenever possible to instead pivot to showing the same few moments once again.

I'm still vague if Weird has come unstuck in time like Billy Pilgrim or knows everything simultaneously like Dr. Manhattan: sometimes it feels like one, sometimes the other. Maybe it's a Manhattan-esque cause with a Pilgrim-esque outcome; Weird is much more like the latter than the former, for one thing, no matter what he knows or how he knows it. Either way, he's a deeply passive character from the get-go: he does very little in the best of times, and is hugely confused by all of it all of the time.

Again, making what is basically a senile old man the hero of a superhero comic is a bold strategy, and I have to appreciate that, even as I have to admit it's not actually a good idea.

Tyler Crook draws all of that cleanly, all of those familiar remixed moments with all of those varying versions of Weird, in a bright style that makes each Weird distinct - I could swear I can even tell the difference between crazy-fighting-Antigod Weird and crazy-post-Farm Weird, which is a trick. His style is subtly different for each one: science-hero Weird often has Tintin-esque dot eyes, for example. From the credit, he seems to be responsible for the entire visual presentation: art and color and letters; it's all him. He gets all the kudos for that; his visual storytelling is excellent here.

I don't know why anyone would want to make this story, other than "Dark Horse is willing to pay me for another four-issue Black Hammer series; maybe I can redo the same thing one more time." It is utterly unnecessary, and the end is faintly insulting to the reader. (Either you saw it coming, and the book is pointless, or you didn't, and you feel attacked by such a simple trick.)

But it exists, and even further Black Hammer books exist, and my guess is that they continue to spiral ever tighter and tighter into the same few moments. And, as long as I can keep getting them from libraries, I will keep poking at them, because I find this bizarrely fascinating.

[1] Admittedly, plot has been thinner on the ground in the main Black Hammer series than one would expect, since the very beginning. If you're interested, the first book was (of course) Secret Origins.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of December 24, 2022

Happy Boxing Day, for those who celebrate!

And, speaking of boxes, earlier this month I got a box of books. One of them - the big expensive one - I held aside for the family to give me as a present, so I guess I'll write that up in a Xmas-specific list (which it's not impossible I wrote and posted on Xmas, which would be the day before this post goes live, and that leads me into Douglas Adams-y time-travel verb tenses which I will not try to untangle).

But the rest of these books went right into general pop, so here's what I bought because there was a good Cyber Monday sale at an online comics retailer:

Steeple, Vol. 3 by John Allison (with some coloring by Sammy Borras and a cover by Max Sarin) - This collects five "issues" of Steeple, but I don't think they were published as floppies. I'm not sure if they were online PDFs, or just pages on Allison's site, or some third-party platform thingy. Since I tend to wait for actual books these days, it's mostly academic to me - this is the next batch of stories about the two warring churches of Tredregyn, with the subtitle "That's the Spirit!"

Signal to Noise is a 1992 graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. I read it, way back then, and maybe more recently (in the sense of "still fifteen or more years ago"), but lost my copy in my 2011 flood. This is the "millennial" story, about a film director who wanted to make a movie about the apocalypse that didn't happen in 999 AD and is now dying.

The Fatal Bullet is one of Rick Geary's "Treasury of Victorian Murder" books, and the murder in this case is that of President James A. Garfield by Charles Guiteau. This one is interesting because it's a murder but not a mystery, and Geary has structured the book almost as much about the two men's parallel lives as about the murder and trial.

Mudman, Vol. 1 is a graphic novel by Paul Grist, creator of Jack Staff and Kane, that I think is a standalone. At least, there doesn't seem to have been a Vol. 2 after this 2012 book. This is a quirky superhero book, bout a teen hero who suddenly has,,,the power to turn into mud? I haven't seen much new from Grist in recent years, which is disappointing - it looks like he last wrote (maybe is still doing?) a team comic for Marvel, not somewhere I would follow any creator.

Night Air is a "Double+" book from Ben Sears. I'd read his House of the Black Spot, later in this series, not too long ago, and liked it, so I wanted to find some more.

Dreadstar Omnibus, Vol. 1 is by Jim Starlin, and I am so not sure how I'm going to feel about it. I read the Dreadstar stories way back in the day, but that was a long time ago, and I don't trust my memories of them. This book collects the first twelve issues of the ongoing series, though I think what I really want is the material that came before this - the Dreadstar GN, The Price, those weird "Metamorphosis Odyssey" stories from Epic Illustrated. (I don't think that stuff was ever collected, and it all went OP really quickly, so it's trapped in back-issue hell.) Anyway, this is adventure comics of the kind that pretends its totally not superheroes, even though it's a team of people in skintight costumes with amazing powers battling evil and emoting to the skies. (Spoiler: they are superheroes. 100%) Finally, the pose on the front cover of this edition is causing me physical pain to look at. I don't think bought this to hate-read it and shame the tastes of Teenage Me, but we will have to see.

Trese, Vol. 5: Midnight Tribunal is, unsurprisingly, fifth in this series by Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo. This is a great urban-fantasy series from the Philippines; see my posts on volumes 1, 2, 3, and 4.

And last is Ralph Azham: The Land of the Blue Demons, second of the four books of that secondary-world fantasy series by Lewis Trondheim. I saw the first one recently, and it has a lot of the energy and viewpoint of the Donjon books. Plus, this one leans into the epic-fantasy genre by actually having a map of the world on the endpapers!

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Incoming Books: Holiday Edition

There were three books wrapped for me under the tree today, and I have to admit that I bought all of them myself. These are they:

The Burglar Who Met Frederic Brown is a new "Burglar" mystery novel by Lawrence Block. It was published this year by Block himself, and I can only hope to be that productive and active when I'm in my mid-eighties. I'm not sure if Block is self-publishing because the big publishers don't make him offers (or offers he likes) or if it's just easier, or some other reason. Frankly, it doesn't matter to me, since I'm a long-time Block fan, though I do wish a big house was behind this, just so there would be a flood of the older Burglar books in paperback and cheap electronic editions to (one hopes) drag in a new batch of readers.

I hadn't planned this, but I'm actually in-between books right at this second, so I might just read this next, starting today.

The Question Omnibus, Vol. 1 is a gigantic bug-crusher of a book - I would frankly have preferred three or five smaller books, but the comics world seems to love the Giant Slab these days - that collects most of the 1988 series by Dennis O'Neil, Denys Cowan and (uncredited on the cover) inker Rick Magyar, colorist Tatjana Wood, and letterer Gaspar Saladino. It has the first twenty-seven (of thirty-six) issues of the main series, and the first annual (and the two closely related annuals that year from Detective and Green Arrow). So it does not have the second annual, the last nine issues, or the five subsequent Question Quarterlies. I hope and trust a slightly smaller bug-crusher will appear to gather that stuff - I'm particularly hoping it doesn't wrap that up with later Question material by other hands, but we will see.

I really liked this series at the time, but the time was thirty-plus years ago. So I'll be looking to see if any of the various Suck Fairies have had their way with it since.

And last is Dungeon: The Early Years, Vol. 3: Without a Sound, the latest in the long-running French epic fantasy comics series. As usual, it's written by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim; art this time is by Christophe Gaultier and Stephane Oiry. (I believe each of them did one of the two albums collected here). Joe Johnson translated it. This also is the first book in this series that I've seen that's album-sized; previous books have all been in a smaller, US-style format.

See my "Dungeon Fortnight" series of posts for more details on the series.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Quote of the Week: Life Lessons

I wanted to share my tent with a booty-shaking funmaker. Experience had not yet taught me that the booty-shaking funmakers are inevitably Australian.

 - Ayun Halliday, No Touch Monkey!, p.44

Friday, December 23, 2022

A Sister by Bastien Vives

Antoine is about thirteen, the older of the two sons in his family. He's a bit on the small and quiet side, preferring to draw with his brother Titi than to do more rambunctious things. As this bande dessinee begins, he's in the backseat of the family car, heading to a beach house for the usual summer vacation. We get the sense this is a comforting routine, the latest of many years that are all much the same. Antoine isn't outgrowing it yet, but maybe he year, or the year after.

His parents get a call on the way down: a family friend, Sylvie, has had a miscarriage. Antoine more-or-less understands, hearing parts of a story in a moving car while other things are happening. And two mornings later, when the family is still settling into their summer house, there's a teenage girl sleeping in the other bed in the room Antoine and Titi share. This is Hélène, Sylvie's only child: she and her mother are going to be spending the next week or so with Antoine's family.

Hélène is three years older than Antoine, and they've barely ever met before. And now she's supposed to spend the next week with these two younger boys, doing...what? That's the story here: the what.

Bastien Vivès named this book A Sister, but that's a puckish title, based on a comment in that first scene. Antoine's mother mentions that she too had a miscarriage, about three years before Antoine was born, and so he could have had an older sister. That sister would have been about Hélène's age, but a teenage boy's relationship with a slightly older attractive girl who he sees mostly in beachwear and in their bedroom - and who he has no previous connection to - is vastly different than brother/sister.

The rest of the book tells the story of Hélène's visit - all from Antoine's point of view, mostly focusing on the two of them. Titi is usually lurking about, though - no one can ever get rid of annoying younger brothers. Antoine and Hélène start out not knowing anything about each other, and don't really talk deeply, as teenagers often don't. But they have a connection, pretty quickly, forged by the usual teenage risk-taking (cigarettes, bottles of wine semi-stolen from a beach event, hanging out with the local kids, some furtive sexual exploration mostly driven by Hélène). And they seem roughly compatible, at least for this summer, these few days - they mesh well together comfortably and tend to make good decisions together, at least with regard to the wild local kids.

And it ends when Sylvie and Hélène leave, long before the end of summer. We know Antoine and his family are spending two months in this beach house; we're pretty sure less than one of those months have passed. The summer is nowhere near over. But this isn't the story of a summer, it's the story of a relationship - what happened between Antoine and Hélène.

We don't know if Antoine ever sees Hélène again. We think this is roughly autobiographical, based on what we know of Vivès, but we have no idea if there is a "real" Hélène.

We also don't really know what Hélène thinks of all of this: we see her through Antoine's eyes, and he may be thoughtful and observant, as befits a budding artist, but he's also thirteen and besotted with her. A book from her point of view could be quite different from this one.

Vivès has a soft grey-wash art style here, much like his The Blouse, and I find his artistic eye is similar as well: there's something slightly chilly about it, as if the camera were another character, choosing things to show for its own purposes. Antoine is central here, but not quite the viewpoint: we mostly understand what he's thinking, without being told explicitly, but he's still thirteen: he doesn't entirely know what he's doing, or wanting, or thinking.

Like The Blouse, this is a book with interesting depths, one that tells its story in a naturalistic, mostly cinematic way. I see this book has already been made into a movie, along with a couple of other Vivès works: he strikes me as a creator very well-suited for adaptation into film.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Venezia by Lewis Trondheim and Fabrice Parme

This is a series: I don't know if there's any more to it than this, but it's definitely a series. It was constructed so that there could be (the market willing!) dozens of albums, rolling out regularly over the decades, building an Asterix-level empire and making creators Lewis Trondheim and Fabrice Parme very contented and successful. OK: they're already both quite successful, and who can say about anyone else's contentment? But you know what I mean.

But what we have here are two albums; they have half-titles as Triple Cross and Codex Bellum, but the copyright page doesn't indicate what their French titles might have been. It does tell us that this 2019 English translation, by Jessie Aufiery, is of older books than we might have thought: these two albums are from 2001-2002, a whole generation ago, which might be why they made me think of Asterix rather than something more contemporary.

So: that's Venezia. Don't expect any more of it than these two stories, at this late date, though the set-up was designed for a dozen more albums to hang off it, and the core conflict is nowhere near resolved. But, then, it would probably never be, in a long-running series: will the Romans ever conquer the indominable village?

The equivalent relationship here is between those two characters on the cover. Both are secret agents of foreign governments, in Venice in the early 16th century. She is Signorina Cantabella, a famous singer, and also the Black Scorpion, working secretly at night for the King of France. He is Signor Pintorello, a renowned painter, who is equally the Eagle, yadda yadda for the Germans. My guess is that "Germany" here actually means the Holy Roman Emperor. but I'm not going to bother look it up: the book is very breezy about who they actually work for, in order to let them take action on their own all the time.

They have both just arrived in Venice. They are both staying in the same lodging house. They are both secretly trying to stop the Doge of Venice (its leader) from allying with the Turks, who have sent an envoy. They hate each other on sight as Cantabella and Pintorello, and are enamored and impressed with each other on sight as Eagle and Scorpion, and of course run into each other in both guises constantly.

The first story here sees them trying to put the kibosh on that Turkish peace plan, which should be easy: the Turkish envoy is mercurial, massively demanding, and deeply corrupt. Of course, it's not that simple, since Venice desperately needs Turkish protection, so there's a lot of running around on rooftops, getting captured by large burly Turks, fighting, and so on.

The second story sees them chase a mysterious lost book by Leonardo da Vinci, and here their aims diverge a bit more: they can't both send the book back to their respective masters, can they? So, even though they do come to respect and rely on each other in their spy forms, there's an inherent matter of trust and cooperation they can't get past.

Venezia, in its English-language form, was published by Europe Comics. On the positive side, Europe does a lot of good Eurocomics, of which this is one, providing a much wider window into that entire world of graphic stories. On the negative, they're electronic-only, which means trying to view these large, action-filled, dialogue-clotted pages at their original size will be exceptionally difficult. So, if you do read Venezia, you may at times feel as if you are looking at it through a small window.

But it is worth reading. Trondheim is, as always, great at complex people-running-around plots, and his villains always have a little more cruelty and nastiness than you expect for the supposed age of his readers. Parme has a very distinctive style, with exceptionally caricatured people and energetic, mostly realistic background details - his people, who are each unique, seem to always be emoting at high speed in front of complex cityscapes as they race to accomplish their ends.

But do know that this is it. As far as I can tell, the Eagle and the Black Scorpion hung up their tights after these two outings, and have never been seen again.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

No Touch Monkey! by Ayun Halliday

I'd forgotten that I'd ever read anything by Ayun Halliday before. No Touch Monkey! was on my shelf because I bought it back in 2013 soon after reading Halliday's YA graphic novel Peanut (drawn by Paul Hoppe) but that long on the shelf made me forget Peanut entirely while reading it.

And, frankly, I don't think the two projects have a lot in common. My sense, from some quick desultory Googling, is that Halliday's career has been mostly closer to No Touch Monkey! than Peanut: she's written a number of prose books, all more-or-less nonfictional and about aspects of her own life, and that one graphic novel for someone else to draw. (She's also a - I think former - long-time member of an experimental theatre troupe and the writer/artist/publisher of an even longer-running zine [1] called The East Village Inky, which seems to be roughly equally about the exploits of her now-early-twenties kids and various interesting stuff in boho NYC.)

Anyway, No Touch Monkey! was Halliday's second book, from 2003. It was ten years old when I bought it ten years ago, and it tells stories going back fifteen or more years before that, so I had to recalibrate a bit when I picked up a book that I thought had just been on my shelf for a short time and suddenly I was back in the dark days of the late '80s. It tells travel stories in fourteen basically-chronological chapters, covering the author's backpacking years.

I've tended mostly to read travel books by travel writers, but Halliday has, as far as I can tell, never been paid to go somewhere - she just went places she wanted to, and then (many years later) assembled the best moments from a whole lot of trips on the cheap into this book. Halliday went from just post-college (and poor) to mid-twenties (and still poor) to early-thirties new motherhood (but still traveling on the cheap) - this is all very much the backpacker ethos, all Lonely Planet and early Rick Steeves, focused on spending as much time in interesting places as authentically as possible, on very little money by doing things like taking trains overnight on a rail pass to avoid paying for a hostel.

I've never traveled like that - I was too poor to get out of the country, and had too many commitments to spend months on the road, when I was young and spry enough that it was physically plausible. And I've never been all that enthralled with nostalgie de la boue to begin with. But other people's stories of dysentery and monkey attacks and dislocated knees are always much more fun than living through them yourselves, and Halliday is a pleasant, zippy writer with a bunch of stories to tell.

So this is a bit outdated - the trips range from roughly 1987 to 2001 - and very much a specific kind of travel, and not at all a guide of how you might travel like this. But the stories are fun, and never underestimate the pleasure involved in having someone else have a trying time in a funny way.

[1] Remember zines? Even typing the word makes me feel old, but Halliday is apparently still trucking along quarterly on paper as if it were still the first summer of Lilith Fair.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Parenthesis by Elodie Durand

What do you do if things happen that you can't remember? What do you do if the people you trust tell you something is wrong, and you can't tell at all?

Brain problems are the most frightening and insidious: they attack the part of us that knows and understands, short-circuiting our ability to react, to fight back, even to know that anything is wrong.

Elodie Durand went through that: working on her master's in art in her early twenties, living with her parents in Paris, she started having epileptic seizures.

Wait. Back up. Durand was told by her parents and others that she was having seizures. At first, she didn't know it, didn't have any memory of them. But she went to a neurologist, she got checked out, and learned she had a very small tumor, deep in between the two hemispheres of her brain. And then her treatments began.

Durand tells her story in the bandee dessinee Parenthesis. Like any memoir, the fact that the book exists at all tells us a lot: she got through, she was able to tell her own story. Durand made Parenthesis a decade after the end of her treatments, about fifteen years after the first diagnosis: that's a lot of time, that's a lot of disruption. And she's quite clear in her book that she's not "back to who she was" - that will never happen. At the end of this book, she says "I feel more fragile physically. I've lost some hearing, and I've never recovered the energy I once had."

Parenthesis is structured as a monologue: Durand is telling this story. But not to us - to her mother. Sometimes haltingly, retelling what she's been told, what she has no memory of normally, and sometimes with more confidence and specificity. Her mother knows all of this, of course. This is not new to her. But it's Durand's story to tell, and telling the story is proof that she remembers things, that she can pull all of the details together, that she is out the other end of this horrible time.

And the way she tells the story - carefully, precisely, full of details, incorporating drawings she made at the time and instructions for the "gamma knife" that destroyed her tumor - also tells us a lot, also shows that Durand has recovered, has taken back her brain and her thinking from the tumor.

Durand's art is organic and dark, grey charcoal in various shades with carefully-placed but fuzzy lines and large masses of blackness. She moves back and forth seamlessly between what happened - scenes of the real world, of the woman she was at the time and what happened to her - and how it felt, darkly monstrous scenes of devouring mouths and twisted bodies. All of it accompanied by her narration, all these years after the fact: weighing up what she remembers, what she was told, what the family has said over and over since then.

This is a book about memory and the destruction of memory, about brains and how they can fail their owners, about one woman and what happened to her. It's told brilliantly and fearlessly: Parenthesis won three awards at Angouleme in 2010, the year it was published, and for good reason. This English-language edition finally came out last year - another decade after the French original, now twenty-five years after this started to happen to Elodie Durand - in a fine translation by Edward Gauvin. It's well worth reading, for anyone interested in stories about the things we remember and the things our memories couldn't capture.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Reviewing the Mail: Week of December 17, 2022

Three books this week: all from the library, two of them from holds and one that I wandered into the stacks to find.

(Note: the mighty Emmanuel Einstein Public Library of Pompton Lakes is indeed mighty, and a lovely building, but it's also quite small, so "stacks" might give an unwarranted impression. I just noticed, this time, that SF is one bookcase, faded from being near a window and seemingly mostly relics of the '90s and Aughts, for example.)

Adventuregame Comics, Vol. 1: Leviathan is the new book from Jason Shiga, which seems to be a return to the format of his Meanwhile... of ten years ago: a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style comics story, ostensibly for younger readers. This one looks to be possibly less ambitious than Meanwhile was; it's definitely in a smaller format and possibly shorter. It's also apparently set in a D&Dish fantasy world, though with Shiga, I'm expecting something sneakier and less obvious than dungeon crawling.

First Person Singular is a collection of eight short stories by Haruki Murakami, published in 2020. I used to be a huge Murakami fan - discovered A Wild Sheep Chase from the SFBC way back in the '90s; was part of the World Fantasy jury that gave him an award for Kafka on the Shore - but his books are bug-crushers lately, and my modern reading regime includes a strong allergy to crushing bugs. So I still have 1Q84 glaring at me from the to-be-read shelf, and I suspect there are other Murakami books that I don't even own. Like this one, for example. But this one is short, and I have hopes of reading it quickly - that is one of the great things about library books; they have to go back, so you have to read them now.

And then there's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, a graphic novel by Mannie Murphy in an odd style - each page is divided into hand-written scripty lettering, laid out like it's in a composition notebook, and a single image in a blue-ink wash. I think I'll need to use my whole eventual post about it to say "what it's about" - it's one of those books that looks to be a head-dump of everything the author cares about, or everything tangled up in one nexus in that author's head.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Books Read: November 2022

I forgot this post for a couple of weeks, which is why it's appearing so late in the month. But, as always, it's mostly an index, and I think entirely for Future Me, so who cares?

Here's what I read this past month:

Bastien Vives, A Sister (digital, 11/5)

Jeff Lemire and Tyler Crook, Colonel Weird: Cosmagog (digital, 11/6)

John Le Carre, The Looking Glass War (11/7)

Sarah Andersen, Oddball (digital, 11/11)

Evan Dorkin, Veronica Fish, and Andy Fish, Blackwood: The Mourning After (digital, 11/12)

Manu Larcenet, Ordinary Victories, Vol. 1 (digital, 11/13)

Jasper Fforde, The Constant Rabbit (11/13)

Neil Gaiman and Collen Doran, Snow, Glass, Apples (digital, 11/19)

Koren Shadmi, Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood's Dracula (digital, 11/20)

Bruce McCullough, Let's Start a Riot (11/20)

Mannie Murphy, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (11/23)

Megan Kelso, Who Will Make the Pancakes: Five Stories (digital, 11/24)

Jean Shpeherd, Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories (11/24)

Jason Shiga, Adventuregame Comics, Vol. 1: Leviathan (11/25)

Will Henry, Wallace the Brave (digital, 11/26)

Haruki Murakami, First Person Singular (11/26)

Jean-Yves Ferri and Manu Larcenet, Back to Basics, Vol. 4: The Flood (digital, 11/27)

In December, I continued to read books, and I'll list them here sometime in the future.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Quote of the Week: Tougher than the Toughies

He knew which ways the trees would fall, and his uncanny knowing was a comfort to a man as surely as it was a source of trepidation. Some said he'd signed his name in a Black Cat book and sold his soul to the Devil for six hundred and sixty-six thousand years. Some said he was a friend to orphans and women, others that he'd climbed up out of the very cleft of a cloven hoof. No matter what anyone said about him, though, everybody agreed that Linden Laughlin was the best jack that had ever lived.

 - Josh Ritter, The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All, p. 20

Friday, December 16, 2022

Simon & Louise by Max de Radigues

It's the beginning of summer, somewhere in France. On the last day of school, teenagers Simon & Louise - we think they've been dating for a while - promise to stay in touch and stay together over the summer, even though they'll be physically apart for the next two months.

And then we get two parallel stories: first Simon, then Louise. There are a couple of moments where they intersect, but they are physically apart for the summer. And, as so often with teenagers, what they promise blithely together does not exactly turn out the way they expect.

That's Max de Radiguès's bande dessinee Simon & Louise: the original French edition is from 2017 and this English-language edition (translated by Aleshia Jensen) came out two years later.

Before I get into more of the plot, let me say both Simon and Louise are generally good kids. I mean that specifically: given the chance, they tend to make good decisions, are concerned about other people, care about each other and not just themselves. But they are teenagers, and have all the blinders you might expect. They forget important things, go after their goals in the wrong direction, and - more than anything else - don't know quite what they want or how to get it.

The main plot for Simon's section starts when he see's Louise has changed her Facebook status to "single," right after she went to Montpelier for the summer. He calls her immediately, and she gives him a reason for it. Simon - again, a teenager - decides to go for a grand romantic gesture, and the rest of his section follows the results of that decision. I won't say more, but it fails to go in any of the ways he expects, right from the beginning.

Louise's section begins in the same moment, and we see why and how her Facebook status changed. And then we see her tell Simon the same reason she did in his section, and know it's not, strictly speaking, true. She also has an eventful summer in Montpelier, in different ways than Simon does.

There's a lot of activity and moments in Simon & Louise, but it's not an inherently dramatic book: we get the sense that, whatever happens to "Simon & Louise," both Simon and Louise as people will be OK. They'll get better at this dealing-with-other-people, living-in-the-world stuff.

de Radiguès gets a lot of life from a fairly simple style here: his people have mostly dot eyes and small features, their bodies mostly slim and minimal, their motions realistic. His lines are organic, not quite straight, even in his panel borders, and they tend to be all of a medium weight and placed crisply in one position.

I think this was aimed at teenagers, for the obvious reasons, but it's not a problem book and there's no reason adults can't read it as well. We've all been Simons and Louises in our day, and our day might well still be "today."

Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All by Josh Ritter

Oh, I don't know how to start with this one. I've typed two or three sentence fragments, only to delete them. I want to talk about how songwriters differ from novelists, what it means to do both well, and point out that this book is Josh Ritter's second novel, after Bright's Passage a decade ago, and to at least hint that I found it more of a novel and less of a book written by a songwriter than Bright, which is a nice big leap forward for him.

Let me leave that jumble there, then. It's not elegant, but it has pretty much all the words I wanted to use, in something like coherent thoughts.

The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All is a lumberjack novel - there must be others, right? nothing in this world is purely unique - by the singer-songwriter Josh Ritter; it was published last year by Hanover Square Books, which (at least in this book) seems to be doing its best to hide the fact that it's one small imprint of the massive HarperCollins machine. As I said, Ritter's first novel came out a decade ago, and was a tight, almost hermetic thing, written with the efficiency of a songwriter, and I thought it was impressive and interesting if maybe too tight and constricting.

Goddamn is a short book, but a bigger one: brawling and open-hearted, with its arms wide open and its voice colloquial and free-flowing as the great American rivers. Like Bright, it's set about a century ago - from internal evidence, my guess is the winter of 1922-23, mostly, but, in its quirky way, it may be more personal for Ritter, since it's set in the landscape where he grew up: northern Idaho.

Weldon Applegate is our narrator and central character. He's telling us the story, from what he says is his deathbed - though we may not believe him. In the frame story, he's ninety-nine and complaining about his neighbor Joe Mouffreau, his mortal enemy. In the bulk of the book, he's thirteen: this is the story of how he becomes a man. Weldon works in a shop in the small logging town Cordelia, that his father Tom runs for Peg Ramsay, who owns the whole town. Tom had been a "jack," but gave it up for marriage, and has stayed away for the sake of Weldon and for the vow he gave to his now-dead wife.

But Tom owns the Lost Lot, a legendary stand of never-cut timber just outside Cordelia. The Lost Lot is cursed - dozens of men have lost their lives trying to log it - or maybe its just damn near vertical and full of gigantic trees that never fall quite in the direction you plan. Either way, it's trouble. And Tom has been obsessed with it his whole life.

When Linden Laughlin comes into town, a giant of a man renowned as one of the greatest jacks ever, Tom's resolve crumbles. He will log the Lost Lot , with Laughlin as his partner: break the curse, make a pile for himself and his son, get back to the life he was meant to lead.

It doesn't work out that way. Laughlin is not what he seems, and the Lost Lot is everything it's said to be and worse. Weldon's life is transformed, multiple times, over the course of this short novel that one eventful year. There are other characters, too - I've left out all of the women, and I won't start to mention the colorful jacks that work with Tom and Laughlin and Weldon.

It's a tall tale, in a way - one with only a couple of stretchers in it, maybe, or maybe none at all, if you look at it a certain way. It's a big story of big men in the old days, before the push-button world, when real work was as likely to kill you suddenly as to make you rich. Weldon's voice is wonderful and all-encompassing, telling a great story in a compelling way, dragging us along with it the whole way.

It's a hell of a lot of fun, deeper and faster than it looks - not unlike a river full of logs, swelled by melting snowpack and heading to a sawmill. Entirely appropriate, almost entirely successful: this is a good one.