Saturday, April 29, 2023

Quote of the Week, Supplemental: Some Jobs Just Can't Be Automated

Dora Molloy - Fainting Dolly to her friends - was unquestionably an artist in her particular branch of industry. It was her practice to swoon in the arms of rich-looking strangers in the public streets and pick their pockets as they bent to render her assistance. It takes all sorts to do the world's work.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, Sam the Sudden, pp.122-23

Quote of the Week: A Masterful Example of the Prehistoric Subtweet

Writers are only rarely likeable. They bring nothing to the party, leave their game at the typewriter. They fear their contribution to the general welfare to be evanescent, even doubtful, and, since the business of publishing is an only marginally profitable enterprise that increasingly attracts people who sense this marginality all too keenly, people who feel defensive or demeaned because they are not at the tables where the high rollers play (not managing mergers, not running motion picture studios, not even principal players in whatever larger concern holds the paper on the publishing house), it has becomes natural enough for a publisher or an editor to seize on the writer's fear, reinforce it, turn the writer into a necessary but finally unimportant accessory to the "real" world of publishing.

 - Joan Didion, "After Henry," in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, pp.560-61

Friday, April 28, 2023

Sam the Sudden by P.G. Wodehouse

I tend to read a P.G. Wodehouse book three or four times a year: he wrote about a hundred of the suckers, and they're pretty consistently wonderful, all sunny and amusing and fun. And I write a post here about everything I read.

So you might be getting pretty tired of me monologuing on about Wodehouse if you've been hitting this blog for any length of time, and I apologize for that. But I do enjoy Wodehouse, and I'm going to keep reading his stuff, even as I get into the quirky obscure books. (Does that make them more or less interesting to the random uninterested reader I've just imagined? I don't know.)

Thus I came to Sam the Sudden, a 1925 novel that was known as Sam in the Suburbs in the US for several decades. It is, as you might guess, about a man named Sam.

Sam Shotter is the usual one-off Wodehouse protagonist: young, male, not rich but mildly aristocratic, educated at one of England's finest schools and possessing all of the traditional 19th century fine-school virtues. Sam is also, as is reasonably common in Wodehouse, possessed of a very rich uncle, John B. Pynsent, who is also the magnate of an American business empire. Sadly, Sam is somewhat headstrong, or perhaps given to (positive, generally commendable) manias, which have and will cause him trouble.

Initially, it causes that uncle to send him away from New York, off to London to work for Lord Tilbury's publishing empire - the two magnates have a growing connection that Sam may help to cement - but in London he finds the young lady who he has already fallen hopelessly in love with, because he saw a newspaper cutting with a photo of her in a remote Canadian hunting cabin one winter.

Yes, it is a pretty goofy set-up.

Anyway, Sam ends up living in one-half of a semi-detached out in Valley Fields, a London suburb. In the other half is that young lady, Kay, and her uncle, who runs a weekly paper for Tilbury and is now Sam's boss. Believed to be in Sam's half of the house is a lost treasure, stolen by a criminal who later died in darkest South America, though not before giving clues to its location to several of his still-London-resident compatriots.

The plot goes from there, with the miscreants trying to find the hidden treasure via burglary and trickery, Sam trying to win Kay by being manly and never hesitating for a second on his every last nutty impulse, and Tilbury, before long, trying to get rid of this lunatic foisted onto his well-run collection of profitable enterprises. They can not all succeed, but there is the usual happy ending, for exactly the characters you expect will be involved.

This is not a major Wodehouse novel, but Sam's nuttiness does suit Wodehouse's style of plotting quite well - the narrative does have to make excuses for itself once or twice in reference to his actions, but that's mostly for humorous effect and secondarily out of still-ebbing 19th century feeling. This isn't exactly the way Wodehouse would go in future, but it shows him trying different ways to add complexity and humor and craziness to his plots, and succeeding pretty well. It's thus quite pleasant for readers who do know where Wodehouse went in the '30s and later.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle

So this is the first book collecting Nathan Pyle's "Strange Planet" comics, in which large-headed Beings do all of the things normal humans do but, and this is the funny bit, they describe it in slightly more convoluted, Latinate language.

It's one of those jokes that seems super-obvious once someone else has made it, and yet no one made that joke quite that way before. So it's the obviousness of being really funny and relatable rather than the obviousness of "I've seen this before."

That first book, unsurprisingly, is named Strange Planet. I'd previously read the follow-up, equally unsurprisingly named Stranger Planet, and talked there about the joys and nuances of the series. This book is just like that, only more so, since it has the earlier cartoons, which tend to be more fundamental and universal.

I don't think I mentioned this the first time, but it's a major part of the appeal: the formalistic language gives Pyle coverage to bluntly state things that are more philosophical or usually left unstated, to make clear the default assumptions of life in a generally light, amusing way.

For example: a lifeguard is talking with a Being in a pool, explaining:

"I am observing you to prevent you from perishing."

"All day?"

"No - just while you are here in liquid."

"There are many other ways I could perish."

"I cannot assist you with those."

As before, this is A Thing, and it's all that one set-up. Some readers won't be interested in that particular joke, which is fine. But it's a really good joke, and Pyle has spent a lot of time working out a lot of smart, funny variations on it. He seems to, after these two books, have turned to making massive amounts of merchandise based on his Licensable Characters as well, for those who want "Imagine Pleasant Nonsense" on a onesie for their shorter beings.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Chivalry by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

Stories about old people who are happy and content being old, who stoutly resist fantastic temptations otherwise, are I think always the products of much younger people. Actual old people are much less sanguine about looming death, I find, less likely to smile indulgently at mantlepiece pictures of themselves in their younger days, sigh contentedly, and turn their faces away from mysterious elixirs and fabulous potions.

Neil Gaiman was barely thirty when he wrote the short story "Chivalry" in the early 1990s. It's a light, mostly humorous story. But it's very much the humor of someone quite young looking at someone else who is quite old, at a light, humorous distance.

Chivalry was turned into a graphic novel recently - just about a year ago - by Colleen Doran, who apparently scripted this version as well as doing all of the art in a variety of styles. (Lettering is by Todd Klein. There's no sign Gaiman did anything for this edition other than say the word "Yes" and sign some manner of document.)

Lots of Gaiman stories have been turned into individual GNs over the past decade or so - I count a dozen on the "other books" page here, plus multi-volume adaptations of American Gods and Norse Mythology - but he's probably written close to fifty stories in prose [1], so the well will not go dry any time soon.

This is one of the lighter - I'm pointedly not saying "lesser," but we're all thinking it - stories, though Doran brings a formidable, and frightening, level of art firepower to this piece, depicting some pages as medieval illuminated manuscripts and explaining in an afterword the extents she went through to find photos of the actual rooms of the real house Gaiman was thinking about for his protagonist back thirty years ago. (One might think that's all rather more effort than Chivalry required, but it's not for us to say, is it? The final product is indeed lovely throughout.)

So: pensioner Mrs. Whitaker finds the Holy Grail in her weekly trip to the Oxfam shop in the high street. She knows exactly what it is, and that it will look nice on her mantlepiece. Soon afterward, the parfait gentil knight [2] Galaad arrives, asking politely if he may have it, since he's on a quest from King Arthur, with a fancy scroll to say so.

Gaiman, as usual, is not doing the collision of high and low speech thing, as other writers might. Galaad is high-toned, and Mrs. Whitaker is sensible and middle-class, not some comic-opera Cockney. They have polite, friendly conversations, with no hint of drama or conflict. Mrs. Whitaker simply wants to keep the Grail; it looks nice where it is.

Galaad returns several times, with more-impressive gifts to entice Mrs. Whitaker. What he does not do is listen to her, ascertain what she wants, and try to deliver that - that would be a more serious story, and not the one Gaiman apparently wanted to write in 1992. Galaad just wants to find the thing that will get her to agree to a swap, and he does, in the end, since this is a light fantasy story.

The prose "Chivalry" was a pleasant quiet thing, all about what wonderful characters the plucky elderly British ladies of the war generation were, basically a love letter to Gaiman's grandmother's cohort. The graphic version keeps the tone and style, and adds a lot of very pretty art, some of which is incredibly fancy and detailed. It is still a very light, fluffy thing, which only very slightly connects to actual life, but this is a very good visual version of the thing this story always was.

[1] It's difficult to count, since his collections differ by country and mix in a lot of poetry, and he's also done a lot of chapbook and small-press publications over the years. When you're the subject of a rabid fandom, you can publish in all sorts of complicated expensive ways and people still buy as much as they can.

[2] OK, Gaiman doesn't actually phrase it that way. But it is still true.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

After Henry by Joan Didion

Didion's fifth book of nonfiction was another collection of magazine pieces, like Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, after the focused examinations of Salvador and Miami.

Most of the essays in After Henry are dated from 1988-90, implying this was a somewhat focused collection of work, at least focused in time.

I've been reading Didion's non-fiction, in the gigantic 2006 omnibus We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, over the past couple of years. And so now I've finally hit the point where her writing career started to overlap with my publishing career - this is a book I could have conceivably seen and reviewed for my employer at the time.

I didn't, of course. I was very junior in 1992 and Didion was very important. Even more so, she was tightly associated with The Competition, so I doubt "we" even made a play for the book. But it's a might-have-been, and Didion's essays are so full of contingencies and suppositions and radically different opinions that alternative history becomes almost real when reading her.

After Henry breaks down into four sections. In a very Didion way, three of the sections have only a single essay; the bulk of the book is in the remaining section, and that is titled, as it must be, "California." Despite the fact that nearly all of the essays in this book were written after she had moved to New York.

The title essay is about her longtime editor, Henry Robbins, who died suddenly in 1979. This is the only undated piece in the book, so I'm led to assume it was original in 1992. Why write about him a dozen years later? Well, everything with Didion is about the past and stories and what people talk about and don't talk about - I can't say what sparked her to write that essay at that moment (though I'm pretty sure someone asked her that question, on the publicity tour, so there's probably at least one answer, out there in the world), but doing so is very in character.

Saying what the other essays are "about" is trickier; Didion tended to start in one place and wander around the nearby territory when writing non-fiction. Essays start out "about" something specific - the Central Park Jogger, Peggy Noonan, Patty Hearst - but turn out to be more expansive, really "about" things like racial tensions and views of truth in New York, how Ronald Reagan was managed and how California molded him, and a sideways review of Hearst's book as well as related musings about the California-ness of her story.

I may be snarkily saying that Didion made everything about California. She did: that was her lens for viewing the entire world; she's the kind of writer that contextualized death squads and political turmoil in El Salvador by noting that several California counties were larger than that entire country.

Didion's essays, as always, examine a situation or time without exhausting it, without claiming to nail it all down for the reader. The longer pieces here, in particular, fall into sections that can feel like separate essays, as if the larger assemblage is really several beads on a string, organized and related but not one thing in any central way. She has a point of view, and a catastrophizing mindset at all times, but that mostly bubbles along below the surface here - she was older, and more settled, and not thinking the chaos would rise up and envelop her the way she had twenty years before.

This is, I think, considered one of her minor works: it has insights, and good writing, and some gems of essays, but it doesn't add up to anything. It's not a cultural signpost like Slouching or an in-depth view into a particular world like Miami. It's, instead, some things that the middle-aged Didion thought worth investigating in the years around 1990.

Monday, April 24, 2023

This Year: 1986

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

Every couple has "our song." Sometimes more than one, sometimes only for a season or a moment. But if you're together for at least a little while, something connects you two.

In 1986, I was a seventeen-year-old in the throes of my first relationship - spoiler! it all worked out just fine, and I'm married to her today - and our song was by Elvis Costello.

In the traditional understated and subtle way of teenagers, that song was I Want You, an ode to obsession and physical desire.

Did we notice that the singer was way too obsessive, shading into "I'll kill one of us if you leave me" territory? Did I, in particular, realize that this is a song set after the end of a relationship, when the object has moved on to another man, and the singer is just entirely unwilling to accept or live with that?

No, sir, we did not. The obsessiveness may have been a plus, frankly, for two teenagers, but we also had the teenager's amazing ability to ignore the things we wanted to ignore.

For us, then, it was a love song. A song of the strongest possible, most overwhelming, perfect love. not incorrect. (It may be wrong, but it's not incorrect.)

I Want You doesn't mean the same thing to me now it does then, but there's still that echo, that memory of feeling so intensely and purely. Of that moment when you can only say "I Want You." Of wanting nothing else, nothing more.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Reviewing the Mail: Week of April 22, 2023

It's been a while, but one book came in the mail this week. 

The book is The Essential Peter S. Beagle, Volume II: Oakland Dragon Blues and Other Stories, the back half of a two-volume series coming in May from Tachyon Publications. The letter also mentions the first volume, subtitled Lila the Werewolf and Other Stories.

As far as I can tell, the two volumes divide Beagle's career chronologically; this one seems to be all works published between 2005 and 2011. I don't know the TOC of the first volume, but this one seems to be mostly shorter works - my sense is that the last big Beagle short-fiction retrospective, Mirror Kingdoms from Subterranean about ten years ago, was more focused on novellas and longer stories.

Anyway: a major retrospective of a major writer. Something to check out.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Quote of the Week: Neighborliness

I was also sick of my neighbors, as most Parisians are. I now knew every second of the morning routine of the family upstairs. At 7:00 a.m. alarm goes off, boom, Madame gets out of bed, puts on her deep-sea divers' boots, and stomps across my ceiling to megaphone her kids awake. The kids drop bags of cannonballs onto the floor, then, apparently dragging several sledgehammers each, stampede into the kitchen. They grab their chunks of baguette and go and sit in front of the TV, which is always showing a cartoon about people who do nothing but scream at each other and explode. Every minute, one of the kids cartwheels (while bouncing cannonballs) back into the kitchen for seconds, then returns (bringing with it a family of excitable kangaroos) to the TV. Meanwhile the toilet is flushed, on average, fifty times per drop of urine expelled. Finally, there is a ten-minute period of intensive yelling, and at 8:15 on the dot they all howl and crash their way out of the apartment to school.

 - Stephen Clarke, A Year in the Merde, p.137

Friday, April 21, 2023

The Adoption by Zidrou and Monin

Monin does have a first name: Arno. Zidrou doesn't. Or, at least, his comics never use more than the single name; I don't know if "Zidrou" was originally a family name or a personal name or his favorite corner fish-shop or an important mountain peak or something else random and quirky.

But this book was written by Zidrou, and drawn by Arno Monin. It collects two related albums, published in France in 2016 and translated by Jeremy Melloul for this 2020 English-language edition.

It's called The Adoption, exactly what the French title was. It's about a grumpy man in his 70s, Gabriel Van Oosterbeek, whose son Alain and his English wife Lynette adopt a Peruvian orphan, Qinaya, after a major earthquake. Alain and Lynette have tried and failed for a long time to have children the usual way, we think - they're deeply into their middle years, and Alain's sister Gabrielle already has two sullen teenagers.

You are already guessing how the story starts: you are very likely right. Gabriel is initially reluctant, but his new four-year-old granddaughter quickly softens his heart, and quickly becomes an integral part of his life over the course of the ensuing summer.

You may think both albums will follow that obvious story: you are very much wrong. There is a big twist near the end of the first album, which leads me to be very vague right now.

It is about Gabriel much more than Qinaya - that may be a bit of a hint as to the direction of the big twist, but it's as far as I'll go. Both volumes are about him, first dealing with the initial adoption and then, later, with the repercussions of what happened.

Monin draws this with vibrant colors and a painterly eye: the cover shows what he can do with landscape and design, but the book itself is much more focused on faces. His people are realistically lumpy and distinctive, both the French and the Peruvians. And Zidrou, as I'm coming to think is characteristic for him, tells the story crisply, dropping hints in dialogue and quietly building in clean structures to a story that seems to "just flow."

So it's lovely and thoughtful, in equal measures. It's also published as an album-format hardcover (paper-over-boards, without a dustjacket) in English, which is the way I'd prefer to read bandes dessinees and which shows off Monin's art very well. A very nice package for a very good story: if the idea interests you at all, I strongly recommend it.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

From Lone Mountain by John Porcellino

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if I don't understand something, or if I'm just not paying attention. The recent publishing history of comics' own Zen master, John Porcellino, [1] for example. He's been self-publishing King-Cat Comics since 1989, each issue more-or-less as soon as he has enough new pages to do so. [2] And it looks like Drawn & Quarterly is collecting batches of those comics, starting this century, at some kind of delay.

So Map of My Heart collected pretty much all of King-Cat 51-61, after a (larger?) book called King-Cat Classix gathered the best stories from the first fifty issues. He's also done books that didn't come as obviously out of King-Cat - some pieces might have appeared there, in other forms - like The Hospital Suite.

And I just read 2018's From Lone Mountain, the direct follow-up to Map, collecting King-Cat issues 62-68, originally published individually from 2003-07. Lone was a decade after Map, but still only gets us up to fifteen years ago...I may be arguing my way around to wanting another big Porcellino book immediately. I'm not going to get it, clearly. And that kind of demand is wildly the wrong reaction to Porcellino's quiet, contemplative, inner- and nature-focused work.

But letting go of desire is hard, as we all know. And that question is pretty central to his work, so it's not inappropriate for me to be grappling with the same things that motivate his comics. It's like a Zen koan about the desire to always have more Zen koans.

Porcellino's comics, here as elsewhere, are deeply personal, resolutely individual, and simply precise, carefully chosen moments and thoughts from a messy, often difficult life - Porcellino had multiple major health issues throughout his twenties and thirties, and I don't know if that's all "handled" now - presented in single-width, crisp lines and lettering exactly the same width, too. If I wanted to be reductive, I could call King-Cat a catalog of his coping strategies, especially for his OCD - that wouldn't be exactly wrong, but we're all coping with life, aren't we? Most of us don't make profound, often electrifying art about it for thirty-plus years.

In the years cataloged here, Porcellino moved from his native Chicago area first to Denver and then to San Francisco, and then back to Denver. He got married, for the second time. His beloved cat, Maisie, almost as close to being the central character of King-Cat as Porcellino himself, died. His father died. A lot of other real-world things happened, to him and around him, some of which he makes comics about and some of which he mostly ignores.

More importantly, he walked a lot. He examined plants and thought about Zen stories. He read books and listened to music. He lived in a world, and tried to express that living in art. This is the result. And it is a wonderful book for any of us who are equally trying to live in a big, often unpleasant world, trying to make sense of it all and find balance and peace and understanding. Porcellino can help show the way, to a thoughtful awareness of life and appreciation of what we actually have, all of the positives and negatives of life, all of its pains and pleasures and inexpressible moments.

[1] My fingers always want to swap around the second and third letters of his last name, and I apologize if any such typos sneak in here.

[2] Which averages out to "annual" for what looks like the past twenty-five years or so. But he's now up to issue 82 - just came out last month! - so he must have been a lot quicker in the very early days.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke

I try not to judge a book by what its marketers say about it - we marketers are flighty, unreliable creatures who want to sell rather than to communicate clearly at all times. But I bought this book under false pretenses, and I picked it up to read (almost a decade later) also under false pretenses, so I'm doubly miffed.

Only slightly, though, since the book was pleasant, if not what I thought it would be.

The US edition of A Year in the Merde, Stephen Clarke's first (of now six) books about Paul West, is published as "Travel" and generally shelved there, with non-fiction books about their authors' humorous exploits in foreign lands. The trade dress and quotes, with comparisons to Peter Mayle, tend to imply that it is non-fiction, as do the words "nearly true" in the back-copy blurb.

It is not; it is a novel, and very obviously so. Clarke's hero is almost two decades younger than he is, doing very different work, and his episodic adventures play a bit like the brief for a humorous British TV series about a young Brit in Paris, hitting new thematic and dramatic ideas in each of its nine month-themed chapters.

Now, it's a pleasant, breezy novel, with an amusing voice - it reads to me like a cross between a minor UK sitcom and a men's version of chick-lit. Its hero is the usual light-novel protagonist, no smarter or educated or informed than he has to be in any given scene to make the comedy work, and his background is as thin as an extremely thin thing. He's supposedly been head-hunted to run a major fast-casual chain launch in France after just doing the same thing in the UK - as "head of marketing," which is not the right title, but leave that aside - but never shows the level of competence, intensity, or drive that someone accomplishing that in his late twenties would have.

But the overall plot is not the point. Merde is about "Paul West" living through fictionalized versions of events in Clarke's own life, and/or amusing situations Clarke thinks could be bigger and funnier than real life. Clarke has made a career - this was his first book, and a bestseller - out of explaining and/or making fun of French things for a mostly UK audience, and that's how to see this book: it's a kiss-slap at France, from a British point of view.

West is little more than a pleasant narrative voice here, a stand-in so any male reader (preferably British and mildly laddish) can see himself living in Paris and living through these experiences. Female readers, presumably, would not take as well to the relentless sexism and focus on women's bodies - "West" is always on the make, in his quiet British way, always assessing every last woman he meets primarily by whether he wants to fuck them.

Luckily, although he does fuck several of them, Clarke never describes the sex - or even body parts - in any detail. Instead, he keeps the book frothy and surfacy, with each chapter providing a very sitcom-esque setup, complication, and dénouement and the overall book stringing them together under a clear but often ignored larger plot that climaxes, more or less, at the very end in the traditional happy ending for West.

There are a lot of books like this. This is a sold example of the form, and Clarke gets in some good jokes. I'm not expecting to get to the five (!) further novels about Paul West, but I don't mind having read this one.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Animal Stories by Peter and Maria Hoey

We've established that I'm not comfortable writing about comics art-styles: I can occasionally swing some interesting comparisons, and I have a little vocabulary, but I'm really more at home thinking about and explaining story.

But I feel like I need to start with the art here. Peter and Maria Hoey use a crisp, tight, digital style for the six linked pieces in Animal Stories. Faces have minimal expressions - smiling is the most frequent, and it's almost templated. Motions similarly are standardized, as if these are outputs of an engine. Backgrounds sometimes show a wavy pattern, and panel transitions give a sense of limited animation, of a few moments chained together to appear to be moving.

It all looks to my eye very much like a computer game. Not a big AAA game, nothing with a major ad budget. Nothing the fast-twitch crowd is looking for. But some kind of online dating sim, or a quirky point-and-click in the depths of Steam, or an old Flash-based RPG on a disused site somewhere. Something that's not new, and not hot, and not well-known, but maybe has a cult following or maybe is the digital equivalent of that mysterious magic store that appears one gloomy night in your hometown and is never seen again.

That's what this looks like: like nothing else I've seen in comics and yet deeply familiar, entirely normal, a storytelling art style from another medium. It looks like something where the viewer is important, where the viewer has - or should have - more control than the reader of a book actually does.

There are six stories in Animal Stories, all of which somehow touch a single pet shop in what I imagine is Brooklyn. (One of the Hoeys lives there, and a street named "Atlantic" is a prominent nearby landmark in the book.) The stories are separate, but connected. All are narrated, by a voice outside any of the stories - like the text boxes in a game, I think, a tutorial to tell the viewer how to understand this world. All are enigmatic and told with a flat affect, drained of emotion.

Every one centers on an animal. First, the pigeons kept on a rooftop by "the girl." Then a dog, inexplicably found swimming far out at sea. Then a squirrel, in a very biblical city park. Then another dog, with an unexpected job. Then a cat, who brings back something unexpected in a hairball. Then a parrot, in that pet shop, at a time of change.

The stories are interlinked, as I said - not tightly, but importantly. We see the same places, and circle some of the same ideas. The stories are fabulist rather than realistic, unlikely and impossible events told quietly and matter-of-factly, in that same chilly narrative voice. And the art, again, looks like nothing else I've seen in comics, but is at the same time deeply familiar - maybe, also, at times like a pamphlet or government bulletin. Animal Stories is impressive, and unlike anything else, and entirely itself.

Monday, April 17, 2023

This Year: 1985

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

The songs you love the best are the ones that send a shiver through you from the first few notes - you hear that distinctive electronic drum beat, and it washes over you immediately.

That particular song might not affect anyone else in the world - maybe it does; I don't know everyone in the world - but it's that way for you, and that's important, and no one can take it from you.

For 1985, that song for me was E = MC2 by Big Audio Dynamite.

It's a song with a distinctive sound, that starts from the first synth-y drumbeat, from the first instant. A jerky soft-hard drumbeat, that builds up through repurposed audio into the actual song - which I have to admit that I've never even tried to explicate.

I learn, today, writing this, that it's a pretty transparent tribute to the filmmaker Nicolas Roeg - the verses describe specific Roeg films; the samples are all from his 1970 movie Performance. That doesn't matter, of course - a song is as much about the feeling and the beat and the images it makes in your head as what the songwriter meant it to be about - but it's an interesting thing to note. Songs often are about something, and that can be important, or not, to any specific listener.

This is a song that was all sound and feeling and ambiance for me, on a record full of random samples, snippets of repurposed movie dialogue. This is the one that hit that booming drum and grabbed my attention and kept me chanting along with the refrain that I still, frankly, think of as poetry rather than meaning anything specific:

Ritual ideas relativity

Only buildings no people prophecy

Time slide place to hide nudge reality

Foresight minds wide magic imagery

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Quote of the Week: A Most Unusual Jumble Room

This was the problem with all of [Samuel George] Morton's results: because his collection had been gathered haphazardly, through serendipitous meeting and social opportunities, some sample groups were big while others were small, with just one or two skulls; some had more females, others had more children. There was no consistency in his data, or for that matter, in any craniologist's data, because the nature of the material made 'systematic collecting' practically impossible. Representative samples were the stuff of craniologists' dreams, but in reality they had to drawn conclusions from the odd assortments of people's heads that they had to hand.

 - Frances Larson, Severed, p.199

Friday, April 14, 2023

Maybe an Artist by Liz Montague

I say this a lot, but audiences are important. If you're putting something out into the world, and don't have a sense of who would care about it, it might be because no one will.

But "people like me" is a valid answer. "People like me at age 10" is an even better one. People get quirkier and more specific every year they live; every eighty-year-old is an entirely different microsegment. But kids are still early in that journey; they're weird and particular but still care about a lot of the same things.

And a good "this is the kind of weird kid I was" book is always welcome. Maybe an Artist is that kind of book, from cartoonist Liz Montague. It is about her childhood, and it is aimed at people who are children now - or who will be children when they read it; there's no reason it won't still be read in thirty years, by the kids of the kids reading it now.

Montague has had cartoons published in The New Yorker, had a strip called "Liz at Large" in Washington City Paper, and did other pretty high-profile cartooning gigs (a Google doodle! illos for the Obama Foundation!), even though she is, if I'm counting correctly, only about twenty-seven.

She gets into that quickly at the end, but Maybe an Artist is about how she got there - it's the story of how drawing and art were important to her as a child, starting at the age of five in 2001. It's really tightly focused on Montague, and deeply in her head most of the time. The external stuff of her life is included, some of the time, but it's all about Montague, and, in the end, all about the pull of creating art and cartoons.

It won, eventually. We know that, because we have the book. But it wasn't the path Montague or her family thought she was on - she was supposed to get an athletic scholarship to a good school, study something that would lead to a "good" career, and move forward. (And she did a lot of that: Maybe an Artist might be helpful for a lot of driven kids, or kids with demanding parents, to show how you can mostly follow the path laid out for you and still get to exactly the place you want to be.)

Here's an example: the back cover mentions that the book includes how she "overcame extreme dyslexia through art," but the book itself never uses the word "dyslexia." Montague shows her problems with letters, and how she used art to work through it, but this is not a book about problems, or about diagnoses - it's not that kind of YA graphic novel at all.

Montague has a cartoony, immediate style throughout, and keeps her young self front and center in the book - most of the panels are about Young Liz in one way or another, and Montague gives her younger self a lot of great facial expressions. She also lays out the book in a light, breezy way, with panels most of the time, filling up most of the page a lot of the time, but spilling out or vignetted regularly as well, to give more energy and life to her story.

This is much more a a purely YA book than I usually read; the audience is very much young maybe-artists. But Montague's voice is true and straightforward and helpful; she gives a great account of the struggles and turmoils of her younger self. So there are joys, even for those who are very much past the maybes of their younger lives.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Finch by Jeff VanderMeer

I've turned, in my middle years, into the kind of man who reads the end of a trilogy first. Even worse, I do that ten years later. I have no excuse for myself.

Jeff VanderMeer wrote three books about the city of Ambergris, and I have copies of all of them - the collection City of Saints and Madmen, the metafictional novel Shriek: An Afterword, and the detective story Finch. Now, my understanding going in was that they were not "a trilogy," exactly, though I might have overestimated how much each of them stands alone.

Finch is clearly the end; it's set about a century after Shriek, in a city that I think has been radically transformed from how it was in the earlier books. I read it because it gave me a vague Disco Elysium feeling - cop who is not who he seems, in a weird, half-ruined world full of radical factions, smart writing and moral dilemmas - and I was in the mood for that.

I have no regrets.

There's a man who calls himself John Finch. That's not the name he was born with, and we will find out his earlier name eventually. He works as a detective in the city of Ambergris, which is under the control of a subterranean non-human race that humans call "gray caps." (Their name in their own language is something like fanaarcensitii; there are several spellings in the decade-old uncorrected proof I read.) This is not our world, but it's not too different. Call it an alternate-world SF novel, with some quirky biotech - VanderMeer was one of the pillars of the New Weird, but he's generally more SF than fantasy; the things that happen usually have physical, especially biological explanations.

The gray caps' technology is all grown, and a lot of it, like a lot of creepy stuff across VanderMeer's work, is fungus. It is creepy, and unsettling - as much so as the gray caps themselves, who are not described in great detail but give an impression of being both humanoid and shark-like. They are notably hard to kill, not that any of the humans under their thumb have much hope or opportunity to kill them.

Ambergris has been through years of turmoil, as two warring mercantile houses battled for two decades for control of the city-state before the devastating and successful gray cap invasion. There are also remnants of the indigenous population - the former human ruling class of Ambergris were invaders, around a millennium ago, and that is still a raw wound in some quarters. And its neighbors were not terribly friendly even during the old long war - parts of that war were somewhat of a proxy battle involving those neighboring states - and now have spies and other assets in Ambergris to keep an eye on the gray caps. Oh, and the gray caps have converted a fair number of humans into Partials, through their fungal technology - servants of the gray caps with always-recording fungal eyes, loyalists to the new regime whose interests may diverge in the end from both humans and gray caps.

And the gray caps are feverishly building two towers, out in the bay, with their own, human, and Partial labor. It's clearly central, clearly important, but none of the humans and Partials know why, or what it's meant to do. Everyone, though, has worries and theories, some wilder than others.

Finch is tasked, as this novel opens, with solving a double murder: one human and one gray cap - or rather half of a gray cap; it was neatly bisected at the waist - are lying dead in an ruined apartment, seemingly having fallen from a height. Their identities are unknown.

His investigation will of course cross all of the fault lines of this very broken city; that's how a detective novel works. I'm not going to spoil any of that: it's an interesting novel, full of great moments and fascinating details, and it succeeds as both a SF novel and a detective novel in the end.

I'm not quoting from it, since I read it in uncorrected proof form, and any words may have been quietly edited a long time ago. But it's a neat book by a fine writer - and not one of the VanderMeer books talked about as much recently. I haven't read nearly as much VanderMeer as I'd like to, so I was happy to grab one, read it quickly, and enjoy it this much.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Ducks by Kate Beaton

In April of 2008, about 1600 ducks died in a tailings pond near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. It's a region full of intense oil-extraction activities, called the oil sands, full of heavy industrial companies who create large, self-contained camps - many are residential; the staff lives there - to get at the oil buried deep underground. Those camps contain dangerous expensive machinery, poisonous solvents and raw materials, and large transient populations of mostly men getting paid a lot to put up with tough working conditions in a cold, barren climate. They have long, tedious safety lectures that are mostly followed, most of the time, at least when they talk about actions that an individual worker should take to protect himself.

The industry doesn't want dead ducks. Even aside from the publicity hit. The head of the responsible company, Syncrude Chief Executive Officer Tom Katinas, said, when the initial estimate of deaths was tripled, "We felt very badly about 500 in the first place. I don't believe that as badly as we felt, you could feel three times worse than we did. But we do feel badly."

Ducks is not about ducks. It's about women. One woman in particular: author Kate Beaton, who was twenty-one and just out of university when she took the first of a series of jobs in the Fort McMurray area, where she spent two of the next three years, commuting to and living in those camps, among those men, alongside those machines and chemicals. 

Beaton never makes the metaphor of the title explicit. The ducks aren't even mentioned until nearly the end of the book; it happened late in her time in Fort McMurray. But those ducks died because their living wasn't important to the men who ran those mining operations. And the women in those mining operations were equally unimportant, and the things that happened to them along the way were just what happens.

But those men do feel badly.

Beaton frames her story within the tensions of home and money: she comes from the town of Mabou, on Cape Breton island in Nova Scotia, a region of Canada without a lot of industry or growth or opportunity. It's a place that people both love and leave - they want to stay and build lives where they grew up, but the jobs just aren't there. So they go, to wherever the jobs are at that time: the US, Toronto, wherever. In the mid-Aughts, the booming place was the oil sands of Alberta.

She'd just graduated with what she calls "an arts degree" - not something that prepares anyone for A Specific Job, and jobs are rare in Cape Breton to begin with. Her student loans were large; she wanted to do something to pay them off fairly quickly and then figure out her real life. The oil sands had a lot of jobs; she could move out there, work briefly as a waitress, and work her way into higher-paying work for oil companies in various camps, moving around for better hours or pay. She did. This is how it went.

During those years out West - 2005 to 2008 - Beaton first started creating comics seriously, and posting them online. Ducks could have been the story of how being far away from her home sparked that creative impulse - her career started with those quick, devastatingly intelligent and funny comics, and that would have been a positive, uplifting story.

That's not the story of Ducks. That's not the story of any book that would be called Ducks. This is instead a story of survival, of hostile environments. It's not bleak - even when women are outnumbered fifty to one, they can make friends and support each other. And most of those fifty men are decent: only a few are not.

But it only takes a few.

It only takes a line, of what seems to be all of the men working on-site, coming to see the new "tool crib girl" when Beaton takes her first job. It only takes a few, leering inappropriately, "testing" the lock on her door in a dorm, telling stories about how all of the few women "get around." It only takes one to give her too much to drink and not hear the word no.

Or maybe it only takes all of them, that see all that happening and let it. It only takes a society steeped in misogyny: men who shrug and ask if she reported it, women who run through events over and over in their heads, trying to figure out what they did wrong, how they could have stopped it.

That's the world of the oil sands. That's where Beaton spent two years. And Ducks is full of moments from those years - like any life, most of the moments she remembers are positive. But there's that undercurrent, all the time, all those assumptions and prejudices of a society of often minimally educated men who live in the society of men and see women as others - and know that they outnumber those women fifty to one.

Ducks is a long book, with the strengths of quiet observation and patience and honesty. It's the story of Kate Beaton in this time and place, a lot of the many things that happened to her over those years, as understood and presented by an older Beaton, once she was finally ready to write about that time.

All of it is lovely and true. Most of it is fun and amusing. Moments are as heartbreaking as any book has ever been, made so much worse because we know they really happened and because we know that Beaton had to be the one to tell us them.

Since about 2007, we knew Beaton could be quick and funny and feminist, could twist established ideas like a pretzel and make them new and exciting in just a few panels. But now we see those same skills, and especially that deep feminism, turned to a vastly larger and more serious canvas. Ducks is a magnificent achievement that I wish didn't exist: I wish Beaton hadn't lived through these things this way to make this book. But she did, and she did turn it into art, which is the best possible outcome starting from hundreds of dead ducks and dozens of women damaged and acres of pristine land spoiled.

But all those things still happened. And Beaton's point is that they keep happening, to other ducks. Until and unless we stop them.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

A Wealth of Pigeons by Harry Bliss and Steve Martin

A couple of days ago I read Number One Is Walking, ostensibly Steve Martin's memoir of his movie-making days illustrated by Harry Bliss. I tend to think Bliss had a lot more to do with page layout and panel flow than just "illustrating" that book, but it also is different than it's billed: the back half of it is a book of single-panel cartoons, presented only on right-hand pages, either to give the reader more joy or to bulk out the book so that reader doesn't see how short the memoir portion actually is.

Since I'd already read the second Bliss/Martin collection of cartoons, sort of, by accident, I decided I might as well read the first one. The library got it to me almost immediately, and so now I've read A Wealth of Pigeons, which first appeared in 2020.

Martin has been writing captions for Bliss for a few years now - their combined byline has turned up on work in The New Yorker and in Bliss's syndicated panel, Bliss. Wealth does have an introduction by Martin that describes how they started working together - basically, Martin wanted to try doing comics captions, and Françoise Mouly introduced the two of them - but the book never says if or where any of these cartoons appeared before.

So this could be a collection of their published work, from Bliss or The New Yorker or both. It could be entirely cartoons that didn't go into those two outlets. It could be some combination of those things - they don't tell us.

It is, like Number One, a book that only uses half of its pages. Cartoons appear on right-hand pages, with the left side resolutely blank, except for a very few two-pagers. (I found one while flipping through now; I may have missed one or two others.)

There are two kinds of cartoons here. Wait, let me back up. There are two ways that you can divide the cartoons here into two kinds. First, there are single panel cartoons with a caption, in the traditional style. Then, there are multi-panel comics pages, of a different tradition. The single-panels dominate, but there are maybe a dozen multi-panel stories, and, coincidentally, that leads into the other bifurcation.

The other way to divide the cartoons here in half is that most of them are gag cartoons with generic people - men on desert islands, dogs, cats, people in offices, ancient Greeks, pirates, realtors, farm animals, parents and children, significant others in love or conflict, pirates, and so on. A few - and, I think, all of those multi-panel extravaganzas but also a few single-panel gags - are Harry-and-Steve cartoons, about our creators.

The Harry-and-Steve material is also funny, but it's meant to be a humorous look at their process. It's not clear if these are also captioned and/or written by Martin, but Martin often comes across as a self-centered arrogant Hollywood type here, so I think he had at least serious input.

But the essential question is: is it funny?

I think so, but then I wouldn't have gotten this book if I didn't think their gag cartoons in Number One were funny. So I was pre-sold, I suppose.

If you're looking for a book that's mostly a collection of random gag cartoons but also has some quirky character stuff about the creators, one of whom is world-famous, and you would prefer that half of the pages are left blank as an artistic choice, you are massively in luck. If you can tolerate or are mildly interested in those things, the same on a lesser scale.

Monday, April 10, 2023

This Year: 1984

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

No one ever left me; I never left anyone. My love life was dull and simple and almost entirely devoid of drama; I'll have been married for thirty years in about a month.

But we don't love songs because they're exactly the same as our own lives, do we? (Wait: do we? Do most people look for songs that are as close as possible to their exact situation? Because I never have.)

I listened to a lot of R.E.M. in the '80s, because R.E.M. was one of the indisputably best bands in the universe that decade, and I was just the right age to listen and appreciate and sing along tunelessly to a sequence of great songs.

It was hard to pick one song, but I needed something that was sweet and true, a little slurry but still understandable - something from those early years when jangly guitars and mumbled lyrics meant the world.

The other major candidates - here, again, I have to again apologize for how reflexively quirky I seem to be, by nature - were the very early propulsive 1,000,000, which had the bad luck to be in the already-crowded year 1982, and the goofy Underneath the Bunker, which still comes to mind randomly all the time.

But I landed on something maybe more conventional, something I think more central: (Don't Go Back to) Rockville, a great, aching love song that is all want and no sign of closure.

I love songs with a clear voice, a clear viewpoint - songs talking to someone, in a moment, trying to convince another person, even when it's clear that argument is long lost and over. Rockville is like that; the speaker is telling the other person that she (she? we'll say she; that seems to be the most likely story) must come back, and that they must be together...even though, the singer admits, that probably wouldn't be a good thing.

It's a song that contradicts itself, a song that wanders around, like a real conversation does, a song about things that didn't happen or that might happen or that could happen in the future. A loving, aching song that's happier than it seems it should be. The music, that twangy, country-rock guitar and loping beat, perfectly fulfills that feeling, too - sad, but not overly sad, as if it's play-acting the sadness for maximum effect in the moment. It doesn't seem to work - the song can never convince her not to go - but that's not the point; the point is to say it. 

It's a song that can only come from that youthful moment, that sense that everything is possible and all the world is open. That we have all the time in the world, and the worst thing possible is to be separated now.

Don't go back to Rockville - waste another year.

Saturday, April 08, 2023

Quote of the Week Redux: It's Just That Simple

Young banjo players often ask me for advice on how to get people to listen to their music, and I always tell them, "be very creative and already be famous."

 - Steve Martin, Number One is Walking, unnumbered page round about, I don't know, 85 or so? 

Quote of the Week: Will You Still Need Me?

During that never-to-be-repeated summer, I had just turned sixty-three when I began the hesitant, sweet, shy courtship of my first real girlfriend. My wife was furious, of course. It's poignant to think that today I've even forgotten her name - and my girlfriend's, too. The summer I was sixty-three was also when I had my second real girlfriend, and my fifth, and my eleventh. Looking back, and remembering how much I paid them, I wonder if they weren't prostitutes. But what did I know? I was just your typical gawky, self-conscious sixty-three-year-old, hormones going crazy.

 - Ian Frazier, "Of Younger Days," in Cranial Fracking, pp.108-109

Friday, April 07, 2023

Gisele & Beatrice by Feroumont

I came into this book with entirely the wrong expectations - I saw a "Rated M" book tagged Romance, looked at the cover of two women actively sucking face, and figured it was the relatively straightforward story of two women in love.

Reader, that is not the case at all. Explaining the difference would be a massive spoiler, but I can note that I tagged this book "Fantasy," and stipulate that I don't mean the sex kind of fantasy. (Or not entirely; that's not inappropriate for this book.)

Let me start from the beginning, and see how far I can get before spoilers pop up.

Gisèle & Bèatrice [1] is by the Belgian [2] creator Feroumont; I've seen the given name Benoit attached to Feroumont elsewhere, but the book uses the single-name standard for French-language comics. I believe this is the same Benoit Feroumont who has worked extensively as an animator. It was originally published in 2013; the English translation is by Alison M. Charette and came out in 2017.

Bèatrice is a hard-working young woman in some kind of office, surrounded by men - we don't see any other women there, though it seems to be the present day. Her boss, George, is about to give a big promotion - which we believe, and Bèatrice insists, is rightfully hers - to a ratlike suck-up named Jones, and Beatrice complains. George, who is a massive caricature, says he'll fire her unless she sleeps with him, and points out that none of the men in the office will ever support her (entirely true) story of sexual harassment, so she has no other options.

She agrees to a date with George; George comes back to her apartment afterward. And then a fantasy element emerges suddenly, and the book changes direction entirely: it is now about Bèatrice and her new live-in maid Gisèle, and follows something like the path I might have expected at first. should I put this? Bèatrice is not substantially nicer in her pursuit of love than George was. This book does aim to be the love story of Gisèle and Bèatrice, but I found it much more like the Stockholm Syndrome story of those two: Bèatrice is demanding and controlling, ruthlessly turning Gisèle into the woman she wants.

Gisèle & Bèatrice is amusing and entertaining, even as this reader decided he didn't like any of the characters or their world. It goes a long, long way to make a fairly obvious point: so far, in fact, that it destroys that point along the way. Feroumont has an energetic, cartoony line, and may be too good at drama for this story: it gets heavier than it probably should.

In its favor, this is a deeply weird, particular book. It commits to telling this particular story, and it races forward from its premises. I said it went too far, but that could be seen as a plus as well: books that fearlessly go as far as they possibly can are rare, but this is definitely one. As I said up top, it is rated 'M' for Mature, and for the reasons the cover implies.

In the end, I'm not sure I can actually recommend Gisèle & Bèatrice, but it is definitely an interesting book that grapples with big issues, even if it does so in massively over-the-top, cartoony ways.

[1] Between the time I read this book and the time this post went live, the English-language edition has disappeared from the usual online mega-retailer. So this link does not work; I leave it in in case it starts working again in the future. There is a Spanish-language edition available there, and obviously the original French version can be found various places. Here is the publisher's page, and the GoodReads page. I'm seeing broken links to the English-language edition on other retailers as well, which could mean all kinds of things: maybe Europe Comics has licensed it for print publication (which is their goal) and we're in the between-times, maybe the rights term just expired (suddenly?), maybe some claim that it's pornographic (it isn't) is working its way through some system.

[2] I have made the executive decision to use the tag "246 Different Kinds of Cheese" for the entire Belgian/French comics industry. It's not entirely accurate, and I apologize to any Belgian people who may be offended at being seen as an appendage of France, but I do have to stop adding further tags at some point, and this is that point.

Thursday, April 06, 2023

Number One Is Walking by Steve Martin & Harry Bliss

We generally don't expect much of show-biz memoirs. It's usually superficial and light, in which the Famous Person gushes about all the famous things they did, usually focusing on how wonderful and special and talented everyone else was and how it was a joy to do the things you remember them for.

There is the other side, of course - the memoir in which someone settles scores, and sometimes even names names. Those are more fun, but less typical.

In manner and substance, Steve Martin's Number One Is Walking is absolutely a standard Hollywood memoir. Everything was always for the best in this best of all possible worlds, only very slightly marred by some occasional self-doubt, which was always proved wrong. He was smart and funny and beloved! And we liked him, we really liked him!

What makes Number One interesting - to the extent that it is interesting, and I'm not claiming a whole lot there - is that cartoonist Harry Bliss turned Martin's standard, somewhat bland stories into comics, which means it doesn't look like anyone else's memoirs. Bliss is a better caricaturist than I realized, and that's absolutely critical for the book - he has to draw dozens of famous people from the last fifty years, including obvious ones like Lily Tomlin and John Candy but also randos like Dean Jones and Jaqueline Onassis.

But, mostly, what he draws is himself, present-day Martin, and Bliss's dog Penny, as Martin tells these stories to Bliss. Now, the book is credited as "by" Martin with "drawings by" Bliss, but the working relationship as they present it seems to be that Martin told stories, Bliss took notes, and then Bliss assembled it into comics pages. In my book, that's roughly "story by Martin, script by Bliss" or maybe a quirky version of Marvel Method.

I don't want to say the best parts of the book are the Steve-and-Harry-and-Penny bits,, wait, I do want to say that. And it's entirely true. The "my movie career" material is potted and bland, saying obvious things Martin has probably said dozens of times in interviews and magazine profiles. The interplay of two men and their talking dog is funnier and more distinctive. (I should say that Penny isn't really a talking dog; like Garfield, she has thought balloons that comment on the action but there's no indication that the Steve and Harry characters understand her.)

But wait! Number One is less than it seems! The Hollywood material [1] peters out less than halfway through: there's 92 pages of "Movies" and then 154 pages of "and Other Diversions." Most of that back half is single panel cartoons, each placed on a right-hand page with the facing page blank, but there are a few longer comics sequences with Steve and Harry and Penny, too.

Now, all of Number One is amusing. And Bliss's drawings are great, whether he's doing gag cartoons from Martin's captions or illustrating the two of them walking through the Guggenheim. But Martin has proved he can do great, deep work - he's written several good novels, an excellent memoir of his early stand-up days, award-winning plays and screenplays, and whatever the heck you call Cruel Shoes. This feels a lot like slumming, like telling lazy stories and letting someone else do all the hard work. I enjoyed reading it, but I did not come out with a more positive image of Martin than I went in with.

[1] Also to note: these are not full comics pages. There's some pages of mostly hand-lettering, set like introductions or text features. Some pages are blank, or have a spot illustration, or a movie title, or something similarly minor like that. And some of the pages of actual comics are full pages, while others are more like a single daily-strip, with a few panels in one tier. There is much less comics-format material in this book than it would appear.

Wednesday, April 05, 2023

Cranial Fracking by Ian Frazier

This will probably be short, since I want to avoid any semblance of frog-dissection.

Cranial Fracking was a new collection of short pieces by Ian Frazier, published in 2021. It collected forty-four humorous works, all but a couple of which originally appeared in The New Yorker. (As "Shouts & Murmurs," is my guess - the book doesn't say that specifically, but it's the traditional place for short humor in that magazine, and if anything in American culture is more bound by tradition than the New Yorker, I'd like to see it.)

Frazier's had three previous similar books, Dating Your Mom, Coyote V. Acme and Lamentations of the Father. And I think there was some humor in the more general Gone to New York. And The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days was definitely humor, and did grow out of New Yorker pieces, but it was billed as, and mostly worked as, a novel. 

I wrote about Frazier's take on that standard New Yorker humorous piece when I read Coyote a decade ago, and I still agree with what I said then. Basically: it descends from S.J. Perelman, particularly from the Perelmanian habit of taking one or two news cuttings and then running changes on particular quirky phrasing or ideas. Sometimes, in the advanced form, the news cuttings are not included; the reader is meant to recognize the cultural thing being commented on without aids. This, obviously, is somewhat easier in a weekly magazine than in a collection issued ten to fifteen years later.

Humor is subjective, so what I can say is that Frazier is good at the Perelman-derived form without being a verbal follower of Perelman most of the time. His work is more straightforward, and usually takes a crisp journalistic tone, sometimes shading into marketing copy and occasionally something more baroque. I haven't read The New Yorker regularly for probably a decade, but I found all of this understandable and all of it funny and some of it hilarious.

Your mileage will vary; that's how humor works. But Frazier is one of our best working today, so you should check him out if you like verbal inventiveness, wit, and ingenious ideas worked out in quick, engaging ways. This is a short book with a lot of variety in it; I'd hope most people would find some things they found really funny.

Tuesday, April 04, 2023

Danger and Other Unknown Risks by Ryan North and Erica Henderson

I have no idea why this very specific and distinctive book has such a generic-sounding title. I could make up stories of epic battles behind the scenes, with different factions jockeying for utterly different titles (How Daisy Saved the World! My Y2K Story - Really! The Second-Worst Journey in the World! What I Did on My Summer Vacation World-Saving Trip! My Story, by Marguerite de Pruitt!), and only able to agree, after months of internecine warfare, on this one. But that would be entirely fictional, if amusing.

What we have is Danger and Other Unknown Risks, a title which could apply to practically any adventure story ever told. This one is written by Ryan North and drawn by Erica Henderson, the team that did the Squirrel Girl comic for several years to vast acclaim and strong sales and the adoration of a huge number of fans, more of them small and/or female than was typical for a Marvel comic.

The cynical side of me assumes that they did Danger so they could have something similar that they would own; the sunnier side of me assumes that they liked working together so much that they just had to do it again. Either way, this is very much the same kind of story: spunky, young, optimistic heroine in quirky adventures across a world that needs to be saved. Marguerite, though, does not have the plot armor Doreen Green did, does not have any superpowers - she has one spell, which has different effects in every realm and borderline useless everywhere - and, even though she is a well-trained Chosen One, her failure is very much possible.

Our world has been transformed. Y2K happened - several hundred years ago, we think, while being a bit vague on how many hundreds - but was instead a magical transformation. The world is now radically balkanized, with obvious borders between different magical zones where physical laws can work entirely differently. (Our heroine, Marguerite, tosses a toad across borders as a testing mechanism, which implies some places don't support biological life at all...but we don't see any of those potentially fatal realms in this book.)

Marguerite has been sent by her uncle Bernard - this is the kind of "uncle" like Donald and Mickey and Scrooge, where the actual parents, if there ever were any, are never even mentioned - on this world-saving mission, along with her companion, the talking dog Daisy. The two need to find three specific artifacts and bring them back to Bernard, who will use them in a massive spell that will Save the World. The world needs saving, Bernard says, because the magical realms are diverging more and more every day, and that will eventually Destroy the World if it is not Saved.

Readers of books for younger people may guess that Not All Is As It Seems. Marguerite and Daisy discover Shocking Revelations and The Real Truth and have to Change Their Mission. But they're always going to Save the World. Along the way, they steal those three artifacts of the Before Times, run away from and/or confront various nasty or otherwise opposed forces, meet some friends and helpers, and, as always with North/Henderson stories, model positive friendship at all times.

Reader, they do Save The World. How could they do otherwise? And if you've been looking for something to scratch that phantom Squirrel Girl itch, this is exactly the thing for it.

Monday, April 03, 2023

This Year: 1983

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

We're now getting into my teen years, when I can definitely say what I was listening to at the time. The next few posts might be filled with drama, because the favorite songs of any teenager will be highly dramatic.

I think this one is pretty high-drama, but I'm too close to it, even forty years later. It meant a lot to me: it was practically a mantra for several years.

My song for 1983 is Oingo Boingo's Good for Your Soul.

I know I'm not the only one who agreed with the opening lines:

Have you ever felt that somehow

You were not yourself

That your body was the same

But everything around you wasn't right

Good for Your Soul presents a series of moments like that - moments that I found intensely true, maybe things that are inherently teenager-y. But it's not a self-indulgent song. It's not there to tell the listener to wallow in those strong emotions, to insist on being special and sensitive and damaged.

Just once or twice is good for your soul

That's the refrain. For a song with such strong emotional hooks - feeling like another person, unrequited love, artistic creation - the answer is muted and almost dismissive. It's not saying not to let this happen. It's not saying to do more of it. It's saying that, yes, you will have moments like this - but don't let them overwhelm you.

And the music is bouncy and filled with hooks, energetic and pulsing, as always for Oingo Boingo. Nothing they ever did was quiet or understated - it all demanded attention, insisted on capturing your ears. 

I had this song running in the back of my head, off and on, for several years. It worked, for me, to keep that focus: to allow myself to feel things, in that demanding, indulgent way a teenager has to feel them, and then to step back and say to myself, Just once or twice is good for the soul; if you don't stop you'll lose control and move on.

Songs about moving on and mental balance are rare; they are to be treasured. This one will always be important to me for that.

Saturday, April 01, 2023

Books Read: March 2023

Here's what I read this past month. Links will follow once the posts go live, assuming I'm not hit by a bus.

Brian Fies, The Last Mechanical Monster (digital, 3/4)

Jeff Lemire, Caitlin Varsky, and Dave Stewart, Black Hammer Reborn, Part I (digital, 3/5)

Geoffrey Household, Rogue Male (3/5)

Sammy Harkham, Blood of the Virgin (digital, 3/11)

Kazuo Ishiguro, Nocturnes (3/12)

Manu Larcenet, Ordinary Victories, Vol. 3: Precious Things (digital, 3/18)

Zoe Thorogood, It's Lonely at the Centre of the Earth (digital, 3/19)

Stewart O'Nan, City of Secrets (3/19)

Will Henry, Wicked Epic Adventures (digital, 3/24)

Debbie Tung, Quiet Girl in a Noisy World (digital, 3/25)

Phyllis Rose, The Shelf (3/25)

Sergio Aragones with Mark Evanier, Groo: Friends and Foes, Vol. 2 (digital, 3/26)

This month, I think I will read more books, though it's only 10 AM on the first, so I can't say for sure.