Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Shubeik Lubeik by Deena Mohamed

Anyone who's traveled in the lands of SF has heard the complaints about worldbuilding: too much research and not enough life, a love of one's own creations, special pleading and crank ideas. But most of fiction never went that far down the rabbit hole to begin with; most genres could use more worldbuilding, more thought put into how fictional worlds work, more rigor and more demonstrations.

I have no idea if Deena Mohamed ever heard any of those SFnal arguments: she's Egyptian and works in the comics form, but it's a big world full of ideas that bounce around, so anything is possible. Her new graphic novel Shubeik Lubeik is a masterclass in how to do worldbuilding well, immersing the reader in an alternate present that's a lot like our world in many ways, with the usual One Big Change.

This is a three-part story, and, from the author's acknowledgements, I think they originally appeared separately when published in Egypt. So call it a trilogy if you have to, but it's all one thing, and the US publication puts it all under one set of covers, the way it should be. I can't find a translation credit, and the acknowledgements seem to be in the same "font" as Mohamed's comics-pages lettering, so I'm guessing this was either originally in English or that Mohamed translated it into English herself. Either way: this is the kind of graphic story that's the product of one person, from ideas to layout to words to colors to letters.

One quick note: this reads right-to-left on the page, like manga - or, more relevantly, like Arabic in print - rather than left-to-right, as English-language comics generally do. I didn't see a notice to that effect in the digital copy I read; it should be more obvious in the physical book. And the first few comics pages have just a few panels, stacked vertically, which can obscure the reading direction at first. If you've ever read "unflipped" manga, it shouldn't be any issue, but it's something to know in order to read Shubeik Lubeik correctly.

"Shubeik Lubeik" are the traditional first words of a djinn: what he says when he's released from his lamp or bottle or whatever. In English, it would be "your wish is my command," which means we're getting shortchanged compared to the graceful rhyme in Arabic. Mohamed tells the story of three wishes here - three powerful, life-changing wishes - in a modern-day Cairo where the last century was subtly different after wishes were discovered, systematized, and industrialized.

There's some interesting background details there: Mohamed doesn't dwell on them, but she clearly understands well how colonialism works and has worked out the different ways it would have affected this changed world. Some of that is plot-relevant, especially near the end, but a lot more is just the world our characters live in. Wishes are consumer products, so there's international commerce and consumer-protection legislation, wish-mining nations and wish-refining nations, standard levels of wishes and international agreements about all of that.

That's the first thing to know about Shubeik Lubeik: it's deeper and much more resonant than you might think. It's not the story of a djinn, or multiple djinni. In this world, a wish is a powerful piece of transformative magic, but not a person. The people who matter here are all human, and what matters to them is what matters to all of us: family and partners, how to fit into the world, friends and working life, history both family and official. The difference is that they can buy wishes - strong ones are very expensive, dangerous ones are cheap - and try to phrase what they want in just the right words so they actually get it.

All three stories start with Shokry, who runs a kiosk on a Cairo street - in an American context, think of it as a concentrated, one-man convenience store or bodega, open to the air and crammed full of stuff to sell to passers-by. Among that stuff is a case with three first-class wishes: he's had them for a long time and would really like to get them off his hands.

Shokry is a good Muslim, of a tradition that says that using wishes is sinful, no matter why. So the wishes are a burden of conscience to him: he doesn't want to keep them, after all these years. He doesn't want to be the cause of bad acts of others. They are valuable, but it's a value he's never been able to tap, and he will never use them himself.

All three wishes do get used, one per section. If you know anything about wish-stories, you can guess the paths will not be smooth for the people wishing, and that having a wish is only the beginning. The three stories are all serious, with flashes of humor - the first is the most serious, with a lower-class woman, Aziza, who runs into bad trouble just trying to use her wish.

In between the three sections are more of those worldbuilding details: text features that mimic government bulletins or consumer pamphlets from this world, explaining the history and regulation of wishes, giving warnings about the dangers of third-class wishes or detailing the new Egyptian requirements for all wishes to be registered with the government and their uses approved beforehand. This sometimes prefigures things that will be important in the story later, sometimes adds color and detail to the world, sometimes makes it clear that Great Powers are just as rapacious and destructive in this world as in our own. All of it is depth: this is a living world, full of complex people, and the addition of wishes didn't change life, but it did make things different in new and inventive ways.

Mohamed has delivered here a major work, full of engaging cartooning and real people and emotionally resonant stories. She immediately leaps as a major comics-maker on the world stage, telling us stories we wouldn't hear otherwise, from a perspective new and exciting and particular and specific. Shubeik Lubeik is a magnificent achievement and sure to be one of the best graphic novels of the year.

Monday, January 30, 2023

This Year: 1974

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

I don't know if all happy families are exactly the same, but sadness and negative emotions are stronger and more resonant in music - songs of happiness and cheer rarely touch me, while songs of depression and nihilism get played over and over again.

This is one of the saddest songs I know, bleak to its core, a warning sung to a newborn about what to expect from the world. My song for 1974 is The End of the Rainbow by Richard and Linda Thompson.

"I feel for you, you little horror" is how it starts, and it gets more specific from there. Richard Thompson sings it straightforwardly: he's not gloating or lamenting, just being honest. These are things the baby needs to know, the truth of the world that baby has just landed in, and Thompson isn't happy to explain it, but he needs to.

Because "life looks so rosy in the cradle," a baby is coddled and cared for, every desire fulfilled as quickly as possible. But the rest of the world is full of  "tycoons and bower boys" and "all the sad and empty faces." The words may seem over-the-top, far too extreme, but the delivery is so deadpan that it comes across as understatement: the world is at least this bad.

I love this song with the same part of me that loves Houseman's "Terence, this is stupid stuff": the part that wants to believe the worst, is ready for disaster at every turn, the catastrophizing mind that never turns off. That part of me is sure that there's nothing at the end of the rainbow, and only needed the Thompsons to make it clear.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Reviewing the Mail: Week of January 28, 2023

This week I have two library books to write about, and these are them:

Kid Gloves, Lucy Knisley's 2019 book about her pregnancy. My library system has had a hard time getting it to me - I feel like I've had a hold on it, on and off, since publication - which might imply it was really popular, or might just imply there's only one or two copies in the system, and one of them got lost for a while. (Who knows!) This is something of a sequel to Something New, her 2017 book about getting married, but all of Knisley's graphic novels to this point were memoirs of one kind or another, so I could call them all "sequels" if I wanted to. Having a baby seems to have launched her into the wider world of books for kids - I see she's done a few picture books since then and has started a middle-grade GN series - which just shows how kids always upend your life, in ways you don't expect.

It Won't Always Be Like This is another graphic memoir by a young woman, Malaka Gharib. Well, I should back up: it's a memoir of when Gharib was young, and largely, I think, about her relationship with her father and his life in Egypt when she was a teenager, but I have no idea how old Gharib is now. She could be older than me! (I hope not.) This was on a best-of-the-year list or two for '22, which is how I heard about it and why I wanted to read it.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Quote of the Week: You Are What You Eat

They were nice people and they paid her well enough, and on time, which meant something. They always told her she could have whatever was in the fridge, but, whenever she opened the gleaming chrome door, all she found inside were probiotic yoghurts. People in Neom took care of their gut bacteria the way people in other places looked after their children. Which is to say, personally.

 - Lavie Tidhar, Neom, p.8

Friday, January 27, 2023

Signal to Noise by Neil Gaiman and David McKean

This is the story of a prominent filmmaker, in the middle of his career, about to embark on what he thinks would be his masterwork, who prefers to die slowly and in great pain than to listen to a female doctor.

Oh, and he also refuses to listen to his closest collaborator, who is also a woman.

Gaiman and McKean, at least their 1992 versions, would not I think characterize Signal to Noise that way. The Andy Wheeler who read it back in those days wouldn't have, either. But as someone who is now older than "the filmmaker" is, boy howdy is he the guy who can't get out of his own damn way. And I frankly can't see it as a coincidence that both of those voices of rationality are women: that's the role women are always stuck with, when dealing with pig-headed "visionary" men, having to try to cajole or entice some stupid bastard into doing the thing that is actually better for him, and feeling it's somehow their fault when they can't quite manage to do it.

You may notice I do not have much patience for this unnamed man-child. He is a self-indulgent prick. The movie he is attempting to make seems to be a boring plot-less slog, in which a large group of "common people" assembles in a hostile environment - expecting to all die - where they shuffle about for some extended period, and then do not die. Frankly, I think at least several of them likely would die, from exposure on a mountain-top, but I am not a visionary art-flick director.

I should explain the movie premise, I suppose. In AD 999, in a random village somewhere in Europe, everyone is sure "the millennium" means the world will end. There's no whisper of "Jesus returning" or the Kingdom of Heaven flowering forth on the Earth, just the doom of world-destruction. So they all wander up to the top of the local mountain to await midnight [1] and their inevitable deaths, during which time the camera presumably swoops around a lot to make some kind of visual interest out of a bunch of ragged peasants standing in the snow in the dark. Then, when they don't die, they go back to the village: The End!

This movie would be a tedious mess; we don't see any aspect of it that shows characters or relationships, so we tend to assume all of these characters would be broad, generic types for maximum axe-grinding. And it is a movie entirely about something that does not happen.

I also wonder if 2022 Gaiman and McKean would see this filmmaker differently; they're both substantially north of his fifty these days, and have each spent the last two decades (roughly) in filmed entertainment, so their opinion of their earlier depiction of a world they now live in may not be entirely laudatory.

I should clarify: within the context of Signal to Noise, the reader is meant to believe that this unmade movie, which I am sorry to tell you has the incredibly pompous title Apocatastasis, would be brilliant and wonderful. This is the point of the book: that Unnamed Genius needed to be dying to make it, virtually, in his head, and then write a script that just maybe will be turned into that perfect movie after he snuffs it.

But wait...notice the palmed card there? Turned by whom? The film theory embedded here is pure auteur: a film is made by One Towering Talent, One Man With a Vision, not all of the little people who get in the way and sully his vision. The equivalent of those "common people" milling about in the movie itself, with no clear idea of what to do, just a crazy thought of apocalypse. And the auteur is gone by the end of the book; only his script remains.

Signal to Noise is ambitious and gorgeous and full of ideas. I've always had it in my head as the least-successful of the Gaiman/McKean collaborations, and my impression is that the rest of the world feels that way as well. It's a book that aims higher than it hits, at least for readers who can't fully invest in the myth of the Self-Martyred Creator. I found central aspects of it deeply annoying; readers similar to me will likely feel the same.

[1] I am not an expert on medieval timekeeping, but there's a prominent Signal From Fred moment here where the narrative points out that clock faces did not even exist until several hundred years later. I suspect the entire idea of "a moment in time" as something that could be defined was alien to this society: they lived in days and the eight liturgical divisions of the day (Prime, Terce, etc.), but that's about it. "Midnight" was not a thing. The moment of "New Year's Eve" as the modern world knows it even less so.

On top of that, I'm pretty sure days began at dawn for medieval Christians, and at sunset for their Jewish neighbors. And that's a pity, because the sun breaking out on the horizon would actually be a lovely visual metaphor for non-apocalypse if Gaiman & McKean had thought of it.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Philip K. Dick: A Comics Biography by Laurent Queyssi and Mauro Marchesi

Every life is a story. I definitely believe that. Every life can be told, in some way, as some kind of story, in a meaningful way. But that doesn't mean every life can be told well in every kind of way.

Writers' lives are mostly interior, so they tend to be told best in ways that can show that interiority, to explicate what was going on in their heads. Visual media tend to prioritize external action, so those are best for the lives of people who did external things, politicians or activists or business leaders or sports figures or entertainers.

So I was concerned there was a mismatch of substance and style in Philip K. Dick: A Comics Biography, a 2017 life by Laurent Queyssi and Mauro Marchesi, translated from French into English by Edward Gauvin.

Dick was a guy who sat in a room and pounded a typewriter, for thirty-some years. He was a guy who had a shattering experience that he called his Exegesis, in which something he considered the Godhead touched his mind directly and gave him a radically different vision of the world. He was a guy whose books were stylistically similar and formed a generally consistent world-view and set of concerns, but where plot and character details are less important, often generic. Writings about his work need to range across his corpus to make connections - a few individual novels are important in themselves, but the ways they return to the same concerns and ideas is even more characteristic and central.

That did not look to me like a life that would work terribly well in comics form.

And this comics biography doesn't really engage deeply with his work - it's what he does, and titles pop in here and there, but the focus is more on his multiple marriages, his engagement with SF fandom and the drug culture, and the standard life-stuff of a bio. We open with Dick seeing an early rough-cut of Blade Runner (based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) to set the scene, near the end of his life, and then drop back to see his story chronologically, starting with the death of his infant twin sister Jane and then running quickly through a couple of childhood moments and then into his writing career.

This book has a succession of events, which as far as I know are all true, and which line up throughout the life of the writer Philip K. Dick. So it is a biography. But I didn't find it a very satisfying one - all of the products of his mind are hidden here, mentioned in passing at best, and the reason anyone would want to know more about Dick are those stories and ideas: Perky Pat. Can-D and Chew-Z. Second Variety. Kipple. "The Empire Never Ended."

I don't think any of those words appear in this book. I don't think Palmer Eldrich or Ubik are mentioned; there's just not enough space in a book like this.

In the end, though, it might be that I'm not the audience for this book. This is not for anyone who already knows who Philip K. Dick is, not for anyone who's read more than one or two of his novels. (I've read most of them, I think: I was collecting the Vintage editions of his SF in the '90s and think I got through all of those at least once, but not his mainstream novels.) This is a book for probably younger readers, probably having to do an assignment for school on a famous person, and the hope is that this book, or a book like it, will let them complete that assignment successfully and maybe even more on to the actual works of the biography's subject.

Maybe that will happen. Good luck to Queyssi and Marchesi in that aim; they do make Dick's external life interesting here. But if you know anything about Dick already, this will be at least a little disappointing.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Neom by Lavie Tidhar

Some books are about story; some books are about place; some books are about people.

And some are about ideas or wordplay or, sadly, making the next payment on the yacht, but let's leave those other options aside for now.

Neom has a story, but it's not a book about its story. It's about a place, and a group of people who live in or come to that place. It's also, not to blow up my schema too much, a book deeply in conversation with earlier SF stories - to give just one example, there's a mechanical intelligence called "a Fondly" and you can guess what kinds of mischief it gets up to when the temperature gets too hot.

Neom is the place: I gather that it is a real-world place, but just barely so right now, a dream of a city on the Red Sea, deep in the Arabian desert. In Lavie Tidhar's novel, we're several centuries in the future: how far, exactly, isn't clear, by design. But this is the same era as his Central Station, and numerous other stories.

There have been wars - big, transformative, horrible wars - but they are over. Earth is peaceful and prosperous, though individuals are not always so. Humans are dominant, and the only group of sentients still generating new physical sophonts - with an asterisk for the digital-only Others of the Conversation, who touch the physical universe occasionally and lightly - but those rambunctious past centuries generated robots (humaniform) and war machines in other shapes (Leviathans in the seas, mecha, giant sandworms, and so on into smaller sizes), at least one kind of speaking, uplifted animal, and the cyborged robotniks. All of those are still around, here and there - some worn out or nearly-destroyed, some damaged (physically, psychologically, both) and solitary in the deep desert, many departed for Mars and the Outer System, some living among baseline humans as just more neighbors.

It is a big, complex, deeply science-fictional universe Tidhar sets his stories in, and any story only shows small pieces of that universe, with glimpses and hints of other pieces and places. Neom, even more than Central Station, is a book about being a SF novel, about being set in this specific SF world and at the same time referencing or ringing changes on a dozen older relevant books and stories. It's a modern, smart SF novel for people who have read a lot of SF and unabashedly want to read more of it.

Neom in this fictional world is a bustling, rich, forward-looking city, very lightly ruled and changing every moment to stay on the cutting edge of every possible thing it could be on the cutting edge of. But our viewpoints are not on the bustlers, those at the bleeding edge, but the ones a bit slower, a bit more left behind, a bit more out of place in the eternal Now of Neom.

Nasir is a policeman, a shurta - a good one, devoted to his duty, in this place where the police don't have a lot to do, for laissez-faire and rich & peaceful reasons.

Mariam works a dozen small jobs, cleaning apartments and working in a shop and so forth: she's got the striving, hard-working side of Neom to heart, though she's not the kind who ever will get ahead or be on the bleeding edge of anything.

The robot is an enigma, an old war machine come to Neom for unexplained purposes, giving no name and no explanation.

Salah is a boy, the sole survivor of the Abu-Ala extended family of scavengers and traders. His whole tribe was wiped out while excavating the dead city of Dahab, where a terrorartist [1] set off a time-dilation bomb back in the days of the wars, a bomb that is still exploding now, in slow-motion, inside a bubble of frozen time. He came out of that explosion alone, with a treasure that he hopes is valuable enough to get him off Earth forever, to get him to a new life on Mars.

Those are most of the elements of this short book: I could also mention Anubis, the talking jackal Salah takes up with, the terrorartist Nasu, and a couple of important secondary characters: the trader in old technology Mukhtar and Sharif, skilled at rebuilding ancient tech and once apprentice to Nasu.

Some of those people are in Neom already and some are heading to Neom. Because of them, something that has been asleep in the desert for centuries will wake up, and the equally old plans of Nasu will start to move forward again. None of that sounds positive; it's not supposed to.

I won't tell you how Neom ends, only that it ends well. This is a smart, open-hearted, short SF novel deeply steeped in the history of the robot and mechanical man in SF, and that has plenty of its own changes to ring on those ideas, set, as I said, in a deep, complex, interesting universe of its own. If any of that sounds appealing, you definitely should read it.

[1] This is just what it sounds like: an individual that uses the elements of terror - explosives, death, fear, destruction - to create a site-specific "art" installation. Think of it as Damien Hirst's shark, but in real time with human beings.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

12 by Manix Abrera

You don't have to revisit works of art you loved to check your opinions. No one will force you. But, if you loved it the first time, you probably want to experience it again, eventually - oh, it's never the same the second time, nothing is, but different is not the same as less good.

I noticed that Manix Abrera's great collection of wordless comics 12 was available digitally in the US recently. I first read it more than a decade ago, back when I was more plugged into SF/comics publishing and had occasional dispatches from quirky and interesting areas of that world; at that point, 12 had been published in Abrera's native Philippines but not easily available anywhere else in the world. There may have been an element of gloating in my review: see! I can get things you plebeians can't! (Or I may be slandering my old self. Either way, he can't do anything about it now.)

And I read 12 again, thinking I would probably love it again, and could recommend it again, and, this time, the people reading my recommendation would actually have a decent chance of being able to find the book.

And, not to bury the lede: yes and yes and yes. I agree with everything I wrote the first time - go back to that post for more details of the stories and ideas, since I don't plan to repeat myself. These are great wordless stories, funny and frightening and touching and goofy and thought-provoking in turn. Abrera is a fine cartoonist as well; his blobby everyperson protagonists are nicely both specific and general at the same time.

And this time, 12 was published in the US, so the author bio and other surrounding material is in English, meaning I know a little more about Abrera than I did the first time. That doesn't really matter - it's the stories that matter - but it's nice to see, and it's also nice to see that Abrera's follow-up 14 (see my post) is also available in the US. It's not a sequel in any way, but it's a single long wordless story, and 12 is a collection of twelve wordless stories, so it's the same kind of thing.

I hope this means that Abrera's other work - I know he's done non-wordless comics, mostly in Tagalog I believe - will be translated for the US market, and maybe that whatever he's done since 14 (which I saw in 2015) will also make it over here. Even if not: he's got two great books of wordless comics out for the US market, both of which arrived here at the end of 2022. Go check them out.

Monday, January 23, 2023

This Year: 1973

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

Last week I had a song about a man who can't leave; this week I have a song about a man who can only leave. Life rarely gives anyone such clear bookends - I had to take them.

My song for 1973 is Tom Waits' Old Shoes & Picture Postcards, a lovely, sweet song that says "it's not you, it's me" in such a way that it almost doesn't feel like a cliché. A man has had a relationship with a woman - it's the '70s, so he calls her a "girl" - and he's ready to hit the road, because it's all run its course and "we'd lost the magic we had at the start."

One quirky thing that I wonder about: the verses address her directly - it's all "you," because he's talking to her. But the chorus drops suddenly into third person, to call her "the girl with the sun in her eyes," as if the singer were Apollo blinding her with his radiance as he leaves. Maybe that's him already distancing himself, already turning this into a story he'll tell later - oh, yeah, I remember her, she was the girl with the sun in her eyes, back when I lived in that other town.

However he means it, however the unnamed girl takes it, this is a song about walking out the door, about the act of walking out the door, and trying to be as positive about it as possible despite several references to sadness on both their parts (tears, weep, cry). It's not about the earlier moments, when he thought about leaving but didn't. It's not looking back later. It's that precise moment: he's in the doorway as he sings, he's got one foot out already, and this is the last thing he's ever going to say to her as part of this relationship.

The music is quiet and open, in a folk idiom - one man and his guitar, telling a simple story. We can see him strumming that guitar, with his bag on his back, standing in that doorway and talking to the girl, singing the song to try to explain why he's going.

And the title? It's not obvious; those words never come up in the song. Maybe they're also things left behind: all the girl has to remember him by. Maybe they're things that remind the singer of his past: mementoes of this girl. You can take it either way, or make up your own meaning. 

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Quote of the Week, Supplemental: Is She Wrong?

"Loving someone is like having a mental illness that's not covered by health insurance," she said, in a flat tone, like she was reciting something written on the wall.

 - Haruki Murakami, "On a Stone Pillow," p.37 in First Person Singular

Reviewing the Mail: Week of January 21, 2023

My plan, this year, is that "Reviewing the Mail" (and maybe similar things) will appear on Sundays, when they appear. It's not going to be a dedicated slot, as it was in the past - I don't get books on an industrial scale the way I did when I worked in publishing. (This is entirely normal and natural; I've never made more than the tiniest effort to keep getting review copies.)

I got a package from the fine folks at Tachyon this week, and so I'm going to tell you about them.

The Scarlet Circus is the third in a series of somewhat-themed retrospective short story collections from Jane Yolen. This one focuses on romance, and follows 2017's The Emerald Circus and 2020's The Midnight Circus. It collects eleven stories, going as far back as 1976 but including some new work as well, and each story has story notes and a somewhat related poem, almost all of which is brand-new as well.

And I got another copy of David Sandner and Jacob Weisman's novelette Hellhounds, which I should note is actually published by Fairwood Press. (Weisman is the proprietor of Tachyon, which is probably why it came to me that way.) This is something of a sequel to Mingus Fingers, by the same authors, and both are weird fantastika stories about music that I don't think I can be clear about since I haven't read them. I mean "weird" in at least two senses, there. Probably more. More is better.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Quote of the Week: We All Knew That Kid

Delbert Bumpus entered [the] Warren G. Harding [School] like a small, truculent rhinoceros. His hair grew low down on his almost nonexistent forehead, and he had the greatest pair of ears that Warren G. Harding had ever seen, extending at absolutely right angles from his head. Between those ears festered a pea-sized but malevolent brain that almost immediately made him the most feared kid below sixth grade.

 - Jean Shepherd, "The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds," in Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories, p.16

Friday, January 20, 2023

Back to Basics, Vol. 4: The Flood by Jean-Yves Ferri and Manu Larcenet

Jumping in at volume four, you might want a Synopsis for Latecomers.

Or, perhaps, you might want to know what happened in earlier Back to Basics books. This is a humorous, more-or-less autobiographical comics series originally published in France in the early Aughts, soon after the events depicted. Cartoonist Manu Larcenet moved from Paris to a small rural town - Ravenelles is either the name of the town, or the house he lives in, or something like that - along with his partner Mariette, and these are stories of his adventures there, almost entirely in the traditional "rural people are stoic, laconic, and good at everything, while urbanites are neurotic and mostly useless" mode. There's also an element of "I am a total goofball who is barely useful at anything, and my partner is a wonderful angel in everything," which is also deeply traditional.

The credits are unclear, and the story of the creation of this series is played for laughs in this series, but my current theory, based on what we see in this book and the previous one, is that Larcenet told stories of his life to Jean-Yves Ferri, who then scripted them for Larcenet to draw. How much Larcenet altered those scripts in the drawing is an open question. For this US publication - in the mid-Teens, about a decade after the French originals - they were translated by Mercedes Claire Gilliom.

The substance of Back to Basics is ninety half-page comic strips in each book - think of them roughly as modern Sunday-comics size, sometimes one big panel, sometimes a 2x3 grid, sometimes somewhere in between - which each have their own setups and punch lines but tend to cluster into storylines and tell one general overall story for the book. 

This fourth book, The Flood, follows Real Life, Making Plans, and The Great World. It it, the baby born at the end of Great World is now a loudly squalling bundle most of the time, as babies often are. Her name is Capucine, but she mostly functions as a noisemaker and a burden here.

So this is largely the-baby-is-crying humor, with sidelines in how-can-I-get-away-from-the-crying-baby and don't-make-any-noise-the-baby-is-sleeping and our-lives-are-suddenly-different, as usual. The other big event is implied by the title: there are massive rainstorms, which flood large portions of this countryside but don't really affect Larcenet and family directly.

Oh, a rave does descend on their house because of the rain, I suppose. But it's mostly baby stuff, which is entirely normal: babies are overwhelming and completely transform your life.

It's fun and funny and continues the stories from the previous books - I don't want to overstate "stories" here, since this really is something like a daily comic, with those kind of rhythms - and I'd recommend it for people who like that kind of thing.

One quirky thing: I don't think this series is available to buy anywhere in the English language. I read it through the Hoopla app for libraries - which is full of stuff, and I hugely recommend it if your system uses it - and it's also available on Kindle Unlimited, but there doesn't seem to be a print edition or even a get-your-own-set-of-electrons version.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami

Is it reductive to say we're in the Era of Minor Murakami? I mean, I don't think 1Q84 is anyone's favorite novel of his, though I can't speak to Killing Commendatore (it's still lurking on my shelf, daring me to find two or three months to read it). And, for the second time this decade, he's put out a small book of short stories, which he apparently wrote as a batch to become a book.

First Person Singular has a lot in common with 2014's Men Without Women, not least that all of the narrators seem to be the same person, and that person is an only just barely fictionalized version of Murakami himself. (He even uses his own name in one of the stories here, as if he gave up on the dance halfway through.) But these stories are even more unified than the ones in Men were: they are all clearly stories told by the same person, in the same voice - all stories by an older man, a man looking backwards, to one thing and then another.

The title claims less than the stories themselves do: it just says they're all narrated in the first person. And maybe Murakami and his editors believe these eight stories are by or about different men. It's not impossible. But they read like the same person; they read like moments in the same life.

I suppose that's a bonus for the book, then? It's not just a batch of unconnected short fiction, but eight things that belong together?

All of the stories are short; all of the stories are literary. All more allusive and thoughtful than plot-driven. All about memories and things in the past, things brought back to mind. I'm not going to catalog them. Most of them are about women, though not as comprehensively or directly as the previous collection. (One is about a monkey, but it's still about women.) There are surreal or fantastika elements, but the strongest, most major one is an uneasy element on the very last page of the book, in the title story - it feels almost like something that was going to be a novel, but didn't, so Murakami pruned it back to a short story and left it (and the book as a whole) to end in that thorny, uneasy, eruptive moment.

Murakami is a fine writer, as always. Or maybe I mean translator Philip Gabriel makes him into a fine writer in English - but Gabriel is the third major translator in Murakami's career, and all three have presented the same voice in English. At this point, I have to believe they're doing the core job of a translator: taking what is specific about the original language and finding ways to replicate that in the new language. That this, more or less, is what Murakami sounds like in Japanese.

I still think it's minor Murakami. But minor work by a major writer is...I'm not sure of that calculus. Still worth reading, I suppose. Yes. I'll go with that. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Wallace the Brave by Will Henry

Books aren't just catapulted out into the world willy-nilly, no matter what some people might think. There's always a complex calculation on the publisher's side, to figure out who the audience is and how best to get to those people. The books that don't have any clear audience, or obvious way to reach them, are the ones that tend to be rejected.

Newspaper cartoons, on the other hand, tend to be thought of as "for everyone," at least by your less thoughtful kind of editor. And who else is left in the newspaper industry after thirty years of cutting? Admittedly, newspaper strips tend to skew to the older side, like everything else in a dead-tree newspaper, but that can mean that the more thoughtful editors - I've been told they still exist, perhaps like the Sasquatch, eternally rumored and never witnessed - try to counter-program, picking features and investigative series and even strip cartoons that appeal to different, even younger audiences.

But I didn't think Will Henry's "Wallace the Brave" strip was particularly one to appeal to current-day kids. It's set in the modern world, as far as I can tell, and it features a central cast of kids, but the tone feels like nostalgia, like an imagined version of what growing up used to be like, before helicopter parents and cellphones and Internet, set in a rinky-dink New England fishing town that might as well be cut off from the rest of the world. It's a very constructed world, is what I mean: a vision of what never was, but that older generations always talk about as if they lived through it.

But the first collection of that strip, called Wallace the Brave, as is traditional, includes a bunch of activities for kids at the back, so my guess is that someone actually thinks this will primarily appeal to actual kids, and not just adults who want to believe their youth was carefree and wonderful. Those someones may even be right, though I wouldn't want to try to attract elementary-school kids to a dead-tree newspaper feature these days.

Anyway, this first Wallace book came out in 2017 and collects what looks like roughly the first four to six months of strips. It has 166 pages of comics, and pages are mostly a single daily, so that's how I do the math. Henry, or his editor, has laid this out more like a graphic novel, with longer strips and sequences - I think mostly Sundays, but potentially week-long continuities, or maybe even new material for the book? - a few panels to each page, making the whole book flow more than the average strip collection.

Oh, don't get me wrong: the  majority of pages here have what seems to be one daily strip. But Henry sticks to four-panels for a daily less than most, so some dailies are turned sideways to get one long panel in, some have three or five or seven panels arranged in two or three tiers on the page, and some places, as I said, it's clearly a longer sequence stretching across multiple pages.

The strips are about a kid named Wallace - that's him at the right on the cover. He's the traditional pushy dreamer for stories like this, the guy who wants to do everything and experience it all, impatient with rules and limitations and always ready to do "real" things. The two overlapping circles of the cast are his family (fisherman father; stay-at-home mother; younger brother Sterling, who is not quite as feral as he later becomes in these early strips) and his friends at school (neurotic best friend Spud, overwhelming new girl Amelia, teacher Mrs. Macintosh).

Wallace the Brave is not a direct descendant of Peanuts, but Henry's kids are smarter, more thoughtful, and better-spoken than their real-world counterparts in the same ways Schulz's were; they're neither realistic six-year-olds nor the doll-like joke-engines of strips like Family Circus. And what they do is in the vein of early Peanuts, or Calvin & Hobbes - more-or-less what real kids do, only more so. Sometimes more so because that's what makes it funny, sometimes more so because that's the "perfect childhood" mythology here. Sometimes both.

Henry has a great illustrative line, detailed and energetic - it reminds me of a lot of the great strip cartoonists of a century ago, back when they had more space for extra detail and complication.

This is a fun strip, which I started reading maybe a year ago, maybe a bit less. You can search out the books if you want - I think there are three more after this one, so far - but the best way to read a daily is daily, so either look for it in your paper (assuming you have one) or check it out on GoComics, and slot into its daily routines.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories by Jean Shepherd

I often point out that specific generations get blamed for the life-stage they're currently in: it's easiest to see in the "those kids" complaints, which have attacked flappers and beatniks and draft-dodgers and slackers and conformists and the phone-obsessed just in the last century. But the same thing applies at the other end, as well. Boomers didn't invent "everything was swell when I was a kid growing up in the greatest time ever," even though they currently own it.

I don't want to claim Jean Shepherd invented it, either. But he came pretty close to patenting it. And what's more American than that? Making an entire career out of being a guy who grew up somewhere and claiming that was the best thing ever?

I've read a couple of Shepherd's books before. And I'm pretty sure you know the general outlines of Shepherd's story, from the 1983 movie A Christmas Story if nowhere else. (You might be like my wife, and be a little fuzzy on the sequence - she always seems to assume it's set in the '50s, probably for the all-nostalgia-is-run-by-Boomers reason above - but you've probably seen or heard of it; it's inescapable in American culture.) Specifically, I've read The Ferrari in the Bedroom, Shepherd's mid-70s collection, his first to engage with the modern world because he'd run out of ore in his nostalgia mine, and In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, his first and most central "my childhood was awesome" book, with the added bonus of having been assembled into a fix-up.

Looking back, it seems my pattern is the same. I think "that Christmas Story guy is funny! I'll really enjoy a book of his reminiscences!" and then read it, and then think "golly, he sure does go on, doesn't he?" The books are funny, but there's too much of a muchness, and way too much Panglossian wallowing in how wonderful it was to Be a Boy In Northern Indiana.

So here I have Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories, Shepherd's 1971 book collecting eight essays or stories or emanations from the previous five years, and my reaction was roughly the same. It's not a long book, and it goes quickly, but I would have been happy with maybe 30% as much nostalgia and gee-whizziness.

These particular stories are mostly from Shepherd's teen years and all appeared first in Playboy, which made for an interesting thought. Shepherd was exactly the kind of writer Playboy wanted in those days: seemingly urbane but deeply conservative by nature, a storyteller of the old school, mingling a frame story of "I am a sophisticated man in a modern world, concerned with only the finest things" with the pure nostalgia of "when I was a teen boy, on the make, here's what it was like."

Every single story starts with Shepherd in the modern day, usually lounging in what seems to be a bachelor pad, and all but one then sees a metaphorical madeleine send his mind reeling back to the halcyon days of yore. (The one exception sees his mother ship him a giant box full of stuff from the halcyon days of yore, which he then digs through and reminisces about.) The title story is about the Junior Prom; we also get the story of one summer vacation, one county fair, two very different dates, and a titanic battle of fighting tops (the spinning kind) with the malevolent Scut Farkas. The last story, the opener, is the famous story of the Bumpus Hounds, which in this telling is not connected to any specific holiday and had a lot more material about how hillbilly the Bumpuses were, including the obligatory hot-to-trot daughter just out of reformatory school.

All of them are told in the kind of over-the-top writing that Shepherd perfected over a couple of decades of telling these stories live on the radio - he was a late-night host on New York's WOR starting in the mid-50s, mostly telling random stories and inciting little pranks - so they are polished like gigantic industrial comedy machinery, some Sinclair Oil refinery of nostalgia humor.

Any one of those essays is fun. Eight in a row is a little much, though, unless you did grow up in a northern Indiana steel town or somewhere similarly dull. If you are my age - pretty old! - or younger, this will all be well before your time, and best taken in smaller doses.

Monday, January 16, 2023

This Year: 1972

Note: 1971 does not appear in this list. See my series introduction for something like a reason. Another reason is that I turned two that year, and wasn't listening to the radio all that much.

I like depressing songs a lot more than I think I should. My life has been relatively peaceful and unruffled by major problems (I had heart failure but I got better; I had a big flood but it only destroyed stuff that could be replaced).

In particular, I have a deep and abiding love for songs about bad love - about relationships unlike any I've ever had, about pain and mutual self-destruction and anger and sadness and regret and all those negative emotions, tangled up or one by one.

My song for 1972 is Dirty Work by Steely Dan, one of the purest and most stark songs of bad love in the American songbook. It's the first major song of regret and sexual obsession in this series, but it won't be the last.

It's a monologue, by a man who knows he shouldn't keep meeting the woman he's singing to, but can't stop. Does "I don't want to do your dirty work no more" mean that this is the end, the final confrontation? No, not at all: listen to the song, listen to his tone, listen to the music. He's hooked. He wants nothing more than to get out, and he can't get out. This is a song by and about an addicted man, one powerless to stop what he knows he shouldn't do.

And, as he says, "I stay here just the same."

Dirty Work hangs in that moment, the mixed longing and hatred. In my head, the singer is complaining at the woman he's singing to, who isn't there. These are all the things he can't say when she's there: she overwhelms him, she drags him into her dirty work, she turns him into the person she wants him to be and then discards him once again when she's done. And he keeps coming back. He can't stop it.

All he can do, when she isn't there, is insist to himself that he doesn't want this, and that it must stop. Will it stop? Well, everything in the world ends, eventually. But I don't think this ends when or because he wants it to. That's the hook of the song: that's what makes it dirty work. It won't stop until she decides it will.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Quote of the Week: Everybody Gets a Trophy

In Hollywood, men don't have trophy wives anymore, but rather trophy toddlers. The Hollywood Hills are filled with men who have children they stare at but cannot lift. Men so old, their kids will be able to beat them up as soon as they learn to walk. Men in thousand-dollar linen jackets still wearing Crocs (for some reason), picking their kids up at daycare, saying, "Which one is mine again?" They always take the wrong kid home. But there's a service that sorts it out. It's Hollywood.

 - Bruce McCulloch, Let's Start a Riot, p.18

Friday, January 13, 2023

Who Will Make the Pancakes by Megan Kelso

Comics take a long time to make - especially if the creator has other things to do with her life. (Like: making money, living, family...all of those usual things.) So there are wonderful creators a reader could almost forget about, just because it's so long between new books.

Megan Kelso is a wonderful creator, a thoughtful writer and detailed artist of stories that are realistic, more or less, and always about people rather than abstractions or genre furniture. I think she's had only one full-length graphic novel, the interesting allegory The Artichoke Mother, but her shorter pieces have been collected in Queen of the Black Black and The Squirrel Mother.

And, not to bury the lede, but she just had a new book published: Who Will Make the Pancakes: Five Stories, which has two hundred big pages of Megan Kelso comics, comprised of, as it says, five fairly-long stories.

My sense is that Kelso's stories all grow out of her life, but aren't necessarily about her. They might be - that's always a possibility - but the reader can't assume.

Actually, that's a good rule for any creator: the reader can't assume. 

These five stories are mostly about women - "Cats in Service" is more complicated, closer to the allegory of Artichoke, and "The Golden Lasso," I'd say, is more specifically about girls [1] - ranging in time and space from WWII-era to the modern day. Since there's only five of them, I feel compelled to write a bit about each one, but they're all good, all strong stories. You could stop reading now and just go get the book; I wouldn't be offended.

Kelso's most famous story leads off here: "Watergate Sue," part of The New York Times Magazine's experiment with comics storytelling in the late Aughts. (They stopped after eight storylines, by eight great creators. No idea why; there were plenty more people who would have been happy to do it.) What I like about this story is how it's not exactly about Sue - who is thirty-two and pregnant in the modern side of the story - and not exactly about her mother Eve - who was probably just slightly younger and became pregnant in the historical side, set in 1973-74 - but about both of them, the way they compare and contrast. Kelso shows intensely here: none of these people will explain what they care about or want, for all that they talk incessantly throughout the story. And the Watergate hearings and Nixon's eventual downfall is not just background, it's important...but, again, Kelso won't tell you what to think about that, or how it connects to her characters.

"Cats in Service" is, in its odd way, the most obvious story in the book - or maybe I mean straightforward. It's a dream- or fable-like story about a family that trained cats to be domestic servants - yes, upright in livery, Downton Abbey-style - and how that all worked out. I don't know if Kelso meant it as an allegory or metaphor - for domestication of animals or for dehumanization of servants, or something more complex - but it can be read a few different ways, and leaves a reader unsure but wondering.

"The Egg Room" has the most interesting central character in Florence. Kelso's main characters often run to a type, in visuals and personality: thoughtful, contained, smallish women deeply connected to others. Flo is louder, larger, pushier than that, and she looks different from the average Kelso protagonist, clearly older and maybe even from a different ethnicity. Her story is about...well, a lot of things. One of the strands that spoke to me the most - I'm not claiming this is central, or even important - is how she wanted to make great art, wanted to be creative and productive, but that didn't happen for her. She's not the only person in the story, either, but I like to think of it as her story. The title here is another metaphor or allegory, which I won't try to explain or spoil.

"Korin Voss" is a historical story: the title character is a single mother right after WWII, with two daughters who don't understand or appreciate her life...as children never do of their parents. She's one of those people who has unspoken rules about how she lives and what she should do, but doesn't always live up to the best interpretation of her own rules and has trouble bending her rules to help herself and her family. This one is pretty closely centered on her: it does jump around a bit in time, but not too much - it's all this era, all this part of her life, all about the changes she needs to make as the world changes around her.

And last is "The Golden Lasso," which I suspect may be the closest to autobiographical. It's about a girl named Diana in about 1980-81, when she's twelve and thirteen. She wants to be good at rock-climbing, maybe because it's something physical she can do well, maybe because an attractive slightly older boy is a guide, maybe because of a male adult leader. Maybe a lot of maybes: it's something she grabs onto as a way to stand out, to work hard, to excel. All of that is great, no matter why she found it. Later, as the story goes on, there's some modern commentary, of Diana talking to other girls she knew then, many years later, about the things they didn't talk about then. And she does have a golden lasso, like that more famous Diana, in some scenes, which forces the truth, mostly from birds and other creatures. It's not real. Or it is as real as it needs to be. It's real for the story; it's real for Diana, when she needed it.

All of Kelso's art is supple and smooth; her lines usually thin around rounded figures, somewhat towards the minimalist or ligne claire without heading all the way in that direction. Three of the stories are colored - all in somewhat different styles and ways, I think - while "Cats" and "Korin" are black and white. I tend to see some Carol Lay in Kelso's people: the roundness, the open faces, the gestures.

These are five excellent, meaty stories, ones that will live in your head afterward and make you think. You should read them.

[1] There's a long history of men writers using "girls" to mean adult women, at least subconsciously infantilizing. I try to be aware of that, and never to do it. So here I do mean girls, not "girls."

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Adventuregame Comics, Vol. 1: Leviathan by Jason Shiga

Just over a decade ago, Jason Shiga made a big, complex story engine in book format, called Meanwhile..., telling a choose-your-own-adventure-style story with clusters of comics panels connected by "pipes" and numbers, driven by the reader's choices. It was twisty, it was complex, it was inventive, it was brilliant, it was a hell of a lot of fun. It rewarded an obsessive re-reading, to get to every page, every path, and was equally amusing and thought-provoking.

As far as I can tell, there's been nothing else like it since - not from Shiga, not from anyone else. But this fall, what looks to be the first in a series with somewhat smaller (presumably easier-to-achieve) goals appeared, to show that Shiga is back with his pipes and story choices.

That's Adventuregame Comics, Vol. 1: Leviathan. This one is a small-format book, which cuts down the amount of real estate devoted to the story, and it's a more straightforward D&Dish adventure: "you" are an adventurer in a tavern in a fantasy land, and "you" get hired by an old sea captain to retrieve a fabled artifact that is at the center of your land, Cloud Harbor.

The story is much simpler than Meanwhile: there's a "good" ending and a "bad" ending, but all of the other mishaps that could potentially lead to other bad endings tend to dump "you" on an island for exiles and miscreants, and, if you paid attention, you know how to get back from that island to the mainland.

In terms of story structure, if the average choose-your-adventure book is a branching bush - a few choices lead to a lot of different, mostly unpleasant endings - then Leviathan is a latticework, with multiple paths through and around it but almost always another connection that loops back to places you've been before.

So, while reading this book, you may find certain sequences of pages come up multiple times, especially navigating around this small world. In that way, it's a lot like an computer adventure game: even the way Shiga draws the world-view pages echoes classic games like Zelda and early Pokemon titles. The cover reading line does say "Part comic! Part maze! Part game!" and that is roughly true, though the maze elements are pretty simple.

Shiga has always been a rationalist, both at the base level of his stories and in how he works out permutations of his premises. I don't want to give away the details of Leviathan, but that's still the case here, even if a fantasy world seems to be an odd choice for such a science-focused creator.

In the end, this is fun and entertaining, with a lot of small details that are important when looping back around and a mostly-serious tone. It's not as ambitious as Meanwhile, and doesn't hit the heights of that previous book, but it's a good, inventive story-machine mostly for younger readers. And the promise of more books like this is also intriguing: will they also be set in Cloud Harbor, or somewhere nearby, or will they be entirely separate stories? With Shiga, I would always bet on the side of complexity and connection, but we'll have to see.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Mannie Murphy

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is a world-famous 1963 semi-autobiographical novel, and the 1977 movie based on it, about one woman's mental illness and survival. It's also a bland 1970 country song by Lynn Anderson.

And a number of other books as well. Probably other things. Titles can't be copyrighted; the evocative ones get used over and over again. But when they're used for something big in the same area, a careful writer will want to make sure that any baggage from that title are appropriate, that the connotations are resonant, that the title has a purpose.

I have no idea why Mannie Murphy's debut graphic novel is named I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. But, then, there's a lot of things about this book I don't understand: it's in large part a series of very specific artistic decisions that baffle me.

I want to be clear: this is at least partially a Me Problem. Murphy's Rose Garden circles a knot of topics that are obviously very important to them, and that they deeply believe are inextricably interlinked. But I did not find the book itself made those connections clear, or told its story cleanly, or could even stay out of its own way consistently.

Perhaps the deepest issue is the place of Murphy in the book itself. This is a deeply told book, with a specific point of view, often angry, politically committed, specific and local to Portland, Oregon. But the book tells us nothing about Murphy; they remain just the voice telling this story - this story which, the book says repeatedly, is personal but will never say why or how - with a few disjointed, random facts about their life dropped in, almost by accident. There's also a friend named "Alder" who reappears multiple times, maybe as a stand-in for this whole Portland community Murphy is trying to represent, but is never seen on the page.

So we don't know who Murphy is. Murphy's voice in this book wants to tell us this is all important, and that we should believe them because they know this world...but gives us no reason to rely on that voice. Worse, the voice rambles and wanders, jumping from topic to topic in a way that may be carefully planned but feels chaotic and disjointed. The occasional wrong word choice or obviously agit-prop smash cut ("suddenly, a hundred years earlier, there were racists!") only adds to the shakiness.

We want to believe in Murphy. We want to settle in and believe this voice will tell us the truth, connect all these disparate strands into something specific. But, as the book drones on and on, we start to think it's the comics equivalent of one of those scrawled manifestoes sent into a newspaper, making the grand case for water fluoridation being the world-controlling tool of the Trilateral Commission or that the Alien Space Bats are coming to steal our spleens.

So: what are the topics of Murphy's Rose Garden? First, the overdose death of River Phoenix in 1993 - Murphy clearly identified with or loved the actor Phoenix was, and there's a semi-buried note of wanting to find people to blame for Phoenix's death throughout the book, that this needs to be someone's fault. Related to that - partly because Murphy seems to be most focused on Phoenix in the movie My Own Private Idaho, partly because what's most important to Murphy all of the time is how Portland anything is - is the filmography of Portland local Gus Van Sant, who Murphy seems to loathe with the heat of a million suns.

The first section of the book stays mostly focused on Phoenix and Van Sant and Keanu Reeves, the other lead of that movie, as Murphy passive-aggressively attacks Van Sant over and over again for...this is not quite clear to me. There's a sense that Van Sant is just wrong - about the people and places of Portland, about what queer life is like, about everything and anything in the world. To Murphy, every single artistic choice Van Sant made is the wrong one and everything he did was horrible...except that Murphy is also clearly obsessed with Van Sant and his movies. There's also an implied theory of art that needs to be correct - that some viewpoints, some stories are just wrong, and can be discarded because of that, and that the good people will obviously know which stories and themes and ideas are right and which are wrong.

Along the way, Murphy uses first names exclusively, as if these were close friends and not famous people that the pre-teen Murphy, as far as I can tell, never met or interacted with. "Gus" does this, and "Keanu" surely must feel like that, and obviously "River" is a dark, tormented, perfect, lovely soul, too good for this world. It's all personal, as Murphy takes that tween-fan connection and bases a whole implied theory of Portland, queerness, and white supremacists on what seems to be primarily the first awakenings of sexual desire.

From that first section, Rose Garden swerves hard into white supremacy. You see, one character in Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy was loosely based on a locally-known Portland-scene guy, who led a hate-crime murder somewhat later and also appeared on an episode of Geraldo with a bunch of skinheads. As with many things in Rose Garden, the sequence of events is muddy - I'm never sure if this is just the way Murphy is telling the story, jumping to ideas as they come to mind, or if they're being deliberately obfuscatory about dates that don't line up to tell the clean story they want to be true. And, again, everything Van Sant ever did is either deliberately evil or accidentally malevolent, according to Murphy.

(Note: I don't think I've ever seen a Van Sant movie; I have no dog in this fight. But it's really, really important to Murphy.)

All of the connections in Rose Garden are on that level: things that are so blindingly obvious in Murphy's head that they can just jump from one thing to another, leaping decades or centuries or from film criticism to racist murders and get right into the thorny messy details that an outside reader doesn't know or recognize or, frankly, often care about.

Most of Rose Garden is about the specific Pacific Northwest manifestation of white supremacy, as seen from the outside. Looking back on the book, I'm surprised there's no queer critique of the obvious homosocial nature of that movement: Murphy seems to think of anyone in any level of that mindset, from any time in the past two hundred years, as equally evil and culpable for all bad things, utterly unredeemable and horrible and never distinguishable as individuals. For Murphy, Portland is the epicenter of evil white people, and that's it.

But every American city has a racist past. Every American state is based in some way on white supremacy. Every region in the US has a history of cops killing people - usually POC, usually poor, usually low-status - that stretches to the present day, and a history of those cops getting away with it. I find it really hard to believe that Portland and Oregon are vastly more so than, for example, Birmingham and Alabama. So Murphy's arguments comes across as special pleading, at best, or, more often, as a failure to see a large picture and a relentless focus on the parochial.

Bluntly, Murphy never makes the case that this place is different. Rose Garden never shows an understanding that other places even exist, that larger systemic problems exist, that any of this is more than just personal. In the end, I came to believe that Murphy cares about these issues because this is where they live and the people they know.

And, to quote Terry Pratchett, "Personal isn't the same as important."

Rose Garden's physical form also tends to aim in that personal direction, to make it look like a scrawled personal manifesto rather than a reasoned, generally-applicable argument about the wider world. Murphy's pages are all split, half hand-written scripty text and half blue-wash images, one big picture per page. Again, it's personal without being specific: Murphy doesn't give away many details of their life here. It's all public stuff: what school they went to, the media they cared about, people in the wider world. The viewpoint is personal, but Murphy doesn't particularize it: we never learn what kind of person Murphy is, besides the clichés of someone who really liked River Phoenix and really hated white supremacists.

So, in the end, I want to believe in Rose Garden and to agree with its stances. I mean, I am against white supremacy - I hope anyone reading this can agree with that. And it is sad when young talented people take a lot of drugs and kill themselves. But Rose Garden is confused enough, and gets in its own way so much, that's about as far as I can go. And that's disappointing, but I think Murphy is still a young creator - there's plenty of time to do more, to get more specific, to tell better stories, to make a clearer case. The energy is there, the spark is clear: it just needs focus.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Let's Start a Riot by Bruce McCulloch

I have low expectations for Hollywood books. I think most of us do. Even if it's by a person whose writing and voice you actually like, there's always the expectation that the final product will be plastic, extruded... Hollywood.

So I was pleasantly surprised by Bruce McCulloch's 2014 goofball memoir Let's Start a Riot, which has the unpromising subtitle "How a Young Drunk Punk Became a Hollywood Dad" and which starts out with several chapters in a row about McCulloch in his "starter mansion" with his "Pretty Wife" and his two then-young children. It looked like it might have been a "check out my quirky life in <Random LA Neighborhood that the rest of the country knows the name of but doesn't get any of the specific details about>" book, all about how he's still that boy from Calgary, even as he goes to gala balls and writes big scripts and suchlike, full of yoga pants jokes and talking-to-my-gardener jokes and even sadder things.

But most of Riot is a memoir; it's mostly about McCulloch's younger years. The Hollywood material opens the book, but that's nearly all of it in Riot - there's another quick story or two at the end. And, even more important, that unique McCulloch voice - the one who sang "These Are the Daves I Know," had an open letter to the guy who stole his bike, and wondered if his head were veal (which it is not!) how much his head would be worth - that's the guy who wrote the book. It's that same sensibility, that same weird Bruce McCulloch viewpoint, throughout the book, coloring all of the stories and history here. Even the Hollywood material, though it's pretty obviously "Hollywood material," is very McCulloch-y.

I'm not seeing a lot of introspection in those old stories - McCulloch isn't exactly proud of the guy he was, and mines his foibles for humor, but this isn't a book about how he got better and became an enlightened Hollywood Person. No, McCulloch did stuff, and some of it worked and was funny, and some of it was drunken and mistaken, and he screwed up a lot of things but succeeded in some of the more important things to him, like being funny in public for a living, and here he tells a lot of stories about all that stuff. And very little of it is told straightforwardly, since he's still Bruce McCulloch - for example, what clearly was a tense, unpleasant relationship with his working-class father is told as "The Beautiful Day You Beat Up Your Dad."

Or maybe I mean it's not pure introspection. McCulloch is always trying to turn it all - all of his material, everything from his life, everything that happened to him or he thought of - into humor, and that means that humor will all be that Bruce McCulloch voice.

I would not go to Riot for a factual account of the history of The Kids in the Hall, though I think what McCulloch writes is true as far as he remembers it, and told slanted only insomuch as it makes things funnier and mostly turns him into the butt of the joke. It's a comedian's memoir: you go to those for funny and quirky and voice, not for how-it-really-was. McCulloch delivers on all of that: Hollywood might have changed him (or maybe not), but it couldn't change that.

Monday, January 09, 2023

This Year: 1970

"This Year" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song from one year of my life. See the introduction for more.

What's your favorite song by your favorite band? And is it the same today as it was yesterday, or tomorrow, or five years ago?

There was a stretch of several years when I would have said the Kinks were my favorite band - quirkily enough, that time would be around 2000, and the Kinks era I love the most is 1965-1974 (basically Kontroversy through Preservation 1). I don't think I'd say that now, most days - you might catch me in the right moment, though, you never know - but they're still there, in the back of my head, a parade of cuttingly smart and devastatingly precise Ray Davies pop tunes with big ideas and grand goals and impeccable aim.

Today, picking a favorite Kinks tune, picking a song for 1970, doing this whole song project, I landed on Apeman.

On another day, in another context, it could easily be Village Green Preservation Society, which has the unfortunate drawback of being one year older than I am and so unavailable for this project. My childhood would probably have voted for Celluloid Heroes or Lola, both from 1972. There are days when 1973's Demolition is the one. I love Better Things, but I love the Fountains of Wayne version better.

No, right now it has to be Apeman. Another song, like yesterday's, very much of its era: a song of frustration and annoyance, a song against the entire modern world. (I could also mention, in very much the same vein, the Kinks' Complicated Life. Another day, maybe.)

This is a song about feeling powerless, about realizing all the panoply of the modern world just isn't helping. That you can be sophisticated, so educated, so civilized...and still be walking around like flies. (We all know what happens to flies when wanton boys are about, and the world is full of overgrown wanton boys.) About wanting to do something drastic to change the situation, and realizing getting out is the best you can do.

I don't feel safe in this world no more

No, Ray. None of us do. We still don't. And a lot of us wish we could sail away to that distant shore, and live like an Apeman.

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Books Read: December 2022

I'm actually typing this a few days ahead (Thursday afternoon), but I'm burying the post on a Sunday morning because, honestly, who cares?

Here's what I've read during the past month, mostly to be an index to this blog for Future Me:

Manix Abrera, 12 (digital, 12/3)

Lavie Tidhar, Neom (bound galleys, 12/3)

Laurent Queyssi and Mauro Marchesi, Philip K. Dick: A Comics Biography (digital, 12/4)

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, Signal to Noise (12/9)

Rick Geary, The Fatal Bullet (12/10)

Michael Wex, Born to Kvetch (12/10)

Paul Grist, Mudman, Vol. 1 (12/11)

John Allison with Sammy Borras, Steeple, Vol. 3: That's the Spirit! (12/17)

Bean Sears, Night Air (12/18)

Jeff Prucher, editor, Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (12/19)

Lewis Trondheim, Ralph Azham, Vol. 2: The Land of the Blue Demons (12/23)

John Barnes, Gaudeamus (12/23)

Budjette Tan and KaJo Baldisimo, Trese, Vol. 5: Midnight Tribunal (12/24)

Algis Budrys, Hard Landing (in SF Gateway Omnibus, 12/24)

Tom Gauld, Revenge of the Librarians (12/25)

Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim, Christophe Gaultier, and Stephane Oiry, Dungeon: Early Years, Vol. 3: Without a Sound (12/26)

Jeff Lemire, Tate Brombol, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, and Jordie Bellaire, Barbalien: Red Planet (digital, 12/27)

Lawrence Block, The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown (12/27)

Mallie and Hubert, In Shadows, Book One (digital, 12/28)

Wilfrid Lupano and Paul Cauuet, The Old Geezers, Vol. 1 (digital, 12/29)

Benoit Feroumont, Gisele and Beatrice (digital, 12/30)

Ian Frazier, On the Rez (12/30)

Jason, Upside Dawn (digital, 12/31)

P.G. Wodehouse, If I Were You (12/31)

Twenty-four books in one month is probably the most since my last book-a-day binge in 2018; I can get a lot more reading done when I'm on vacation. Such is life!