Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Thoreau by Maximilien Le Roy and A. Dan

My favorite - and least believed - mondegreen is about Henry Thoreau, taking a swaggering song by my state's standard junior troubadour and replacing Bad Medicine with Transcendentalism:
Thoreau is like Ralph Emerson
Ralph Emerson is what I read
No one ever actually misheard the song that way. But it's fun to pretend so.

On the other hand, a lot of people think Thoreau really did live alone, in a small cabin, for most of his life. (It was two years.) They think he was a remote hermit. (The cabin was on land owned by his family; it was a short walk to town; he had dinner in the family home regularly.)

Thoreau, to my mind, was maybe the last major aristocratic dilettante philosopher, the last gasp of the model that gave us Montaigne. His entire career is founded on the fact that he didn't want to do things, and he had the wealth and position not to do them - all of that from his successful family. In the same century, other writers cobbled together other sources of support, scurrying in the rapacious cash-nexus of capitalism - like Marx's dependence on Engels - but Thoreau was lucky enough to be able to follow the old path.

Thoreau: A Sublime Life is largely about that famous stint in the cabin, and is not quite as honest as it could be about Thoreau. But it's mostly honest, and that's about as much as one can expect from a positive biography of anyone: pure honesty would damn anyone, wouldn't it?

This is a 2012 bande desinee, written and colored by Maxmilien Le Roy and drawn by A. Dan. [1] The English-language edition was translated by Peter Rusella and published in 2016, by NBM. It's a fairly standard potted short biography in graphic form, the kind renowned, if not quite beloved, by generations of middle-schoolers desperate to do a book report over their next school holiday.

Le Roy is a strong Thoreau partisan, as the author of a biography like this should be. He also contributes a short introductory foreword and a much longer and detailed postscript, which those middle-schoolers should find to contain many highly useful quotes.

This is very episodic, as it has to be. Context is not always clear, as when we see Thoreau on one of his trips with Natives up north in Maine. And it starts with Thoreau as an adult, in the Walden Pond years - Le Roy is happy to cover how Thoreau's views on things shifted and evolved, but they're fairly set from page one here, and Le Roy has no interest in explaining how they were initially formed.

Dan has a detailed, illustrative style that works well with the craggy 19th-century faces he has to work with here, and he has a great eye for details of the natural world, always important in a book about Thoreau. The colors are bright and clear, and slightly less naturalistic than one might expect, giving a bit of a storybook air.

I don't think there's a better ninety-page book on Thoreau for general readers - that might sound like damning with faint praise, but it's what Thoreau: A Sublime Life is, and to say it's the best at that thing is not small.

[1] I want to joke, "not any particular Dan," which is probably too mean. And yet I have done it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick

A good book is one you can read and enjoy. A great book is one you can read again and find entirely different things.

Admittedly, if you wait thirty years, you're almost guaranteed to find new things. You may have forgotten what you found the first time around, too. And if you read the book over Easter weekend, you may notice something incredibly obvious that you somehow missed when you were in your early twenties.

Michael Swanwick won the Nebula in 1991 for the novel Stations of the Tide. It has fourteen chapters, covering the time before a local apocalypse on the planet Miranda, focused on a character we only know as "the bureaucrat."

And I only just this time realized how much that structure and title are analogous to the stations of the cross. (To be fair to me, I'm no more religious than I think Swanwick is. And the stations of the cross is very much A Catholic Thing, and I was only a very vague Protestant in my youth.) There are also strong echoes of The Tempest, and more buried references to The Fifth Head of Cerberus. Lurking far in the background are the inevitable memories of Heart of Darkness.

It is the medium future, at least a few hundred years on, but humans are still recognizable and in their current form. At least one AI apocalypse has happened, to Earth as is traditional, but human civilization survived and its center is now in space habitats. The scope and scale of that civilization is not germane to this book, but humanity spans multiple star systems, and their core habitats are probably mostly in the Solar System. They have limited AI, as locked-down assistants usually manifest in the physical world as "briefcases," and as agents, copies of a human mind that are sent to act for that human and then be re-absorbed into the parent. It's not quite a post-scarcity techno-utopia, but it's well along that line: rich and comfortable and healthy.

The bureaucrat works for Technology Transfer. His job, as we see it, seems to be mostly to stop technology transfer, to make sure planetary populations don't spark another runaway AI spike, that they stay within the rigid limits the more powerful and dominant space civilization imposes. He's part of a vast government structure, as his name implies, but he has far less immediate power and influence than we might expect at first.

He arrives on Miranda just before the change in their great year, chasing Gregorian, a local who worked in the space civilization for a while and may have fled home with forbidden technology. Gregorian claims to be a magician who can transform humans into sea-borne life, among other powers. With the right tech, that might even be true. There are other mysteries in Gregorian's past that the bureaucrat will need to trace and explicate before he's done on Miranda, too.

Swanwick doesn't describe Miranda's orbital period, or give us any info-dumps. So we know that Great Summer is turning into Great Winter, that the poles are melting swiftly, and that the entire continent of the Tidewater will be flooded for the next several decades - but not the details of why or how. We do know this will all happen quickly, and accept that for the sake of a premise.

The Tidewater is being evacuated, its entire population selling off their valuables, settling old scores, and maneuvering for their changed lives in the Piedmont, another continent that will not be flooded. Across this upended landscape, the bureaucrat travels with a local police office, Lieutenant Chu, chasing rumors of Gregorian as the time of the jubilee tides gets nearer and nearer.

Stations is a sequence of events, like beads on a string, as the bureaucrat learns more and more about Miranda and gets closer and closer to Gregorian. It's not a chase, it's not a thriller. It's not very plot-heavy at all; each chapter tends to start quietly, in a different place somewhat later in time than the previous. Swanwick has no ticking clock: we know the jubilee tides are near, but never, until they hit at the end, how much time is left. What's important is that they are inexorably coming, not the number of moments until then.

There are Clarkean moments of "magic," which has led some readers to place this book somewhere closer to magical realism or fantasy. It definitely nods to magical realism - it is a book that knows magical realism exists, and wants to use tropes and ideas from that genre - but I think everything that happens is explicably SFnally. This is far in the future, and radical biological transformations have been long possible, if long outlawed.

And it ends well, better than I remembered and not the way a reader might expect. The bureaucrat does find Gregorian, as he must. The tides hit, as they were always going to. And I remembered the crisp, perfect last line - but not the why and the how of it.

It is a fine SF novel, a major award winner still worth reading, a book where the SF furniture has only dated slightly: there's a lot of talk of "television" that would be "video" or something similar in a book from this decade. It is resonant and true, and I'm glad I found it in a box at the back of the basement and decided to read it again.

Monday, May 29, 2023

This Year: 1991

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

I'm a words person, so I especially love songs with a lot of words - ones that tell stories, ones that have flights of language, ones that throw complications on top of complications. And singers who can perform those tongue-twisters are among my favorites.

I'm the guy who memorized "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" in the late '80s for no good reason, for example. (And still could probably get through most of it, if my breath held out.)

So obviously I'd have to have a Warren Zevon song somewhere on this list. (Though you might have thought I'd forgotten him by now, since I'm already up to 1991.) I don't know if this is my favorite Zevon song - favorites shift over time, and can vary by day [1] - but it's the one I chant along with whenever I hear it, and one I don't think will ever get old.

For 1991, my song is Mr. Bad Example.

It is a litany of bad behavior, the life story of a uniquely horrible man, one who chased every opportunity to steal and cheat and lie, who always has more options to do so and an endless facility for bullshit to keep him going. [2] And, as a listener, we love him for it: the carefree attitude, the lack of fucks given, the compulsive relentless forward motion of his career of evil-doing.

Zevon rolls this all out at speed, with something like a march-beat behind him. You've got to make good time if you want to do a lot of bad things, right? It's not quite monotonous - Zevon keeps it from getting to that point - but it's a lot and it's fast and it's funny.

I'm Mr. Bad Example, intruder in the dirt

I like to have a good time and I don't care who gets hurt

We've all known people like that. Some of us may have been people like that. They're horrible people, but strangely compelling, in their sunny monomania. In fiction, they're exciting and the fun kind of wicked. We can all love fiction.

And Zevon knows all that. The brilliant thing about Zevon was that he always knew the downside, and built it in from the beginning. What's the song called, again? Mr. Bad Example. Not "My Brilliant Life" or "How to Fleece the Rubes" or "I Enjoyed Every Last Minute of It."

With Zevon, there's always a judgement: it might be delayed so far you never think it will come, but it is looming. He's not Mr. Gets Away With It. He's Mr. Bad Example.

[1] I can't find it now, but I said something like "As you get older, your life is a lot less Werewolves of London and a lot more Desperadoes Under the Eaves than you're comfortable with" on Twitter not long ago.

[2] The song is fictional. Maybe I should emphasize that. I am not describing a specific, real person who was formerly President. Not at all.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Quote of the Week: All You Have to Lose Is

In that sense, robots were already free. Whatever a robot was seen doing, within reason, it was always assumed that he had a right to do it and a duty to do it. In a city like this, robot slavery depended very much on those mysterious asimov circuits, not on human supervision.

There were times I wondered whether the asimovs even existed. It was very easy to imagine that there were no asimov circuits, but that people and robots had been conned into believing in programmed slavery. The idea of turning moral decisions into digital data (and screening out wrong ones) was powerful and attractive. People wanted it to be true. They wanted robots incapable of sin, trustworthy slaves.

 - John Sladek, Tik-Tok, pp.383-384 in SF Gateway Omnibus

Friday, May 26, 2023

MBDL: My Badly Drawn Life by Gipi

I don't know if I'm missing cultural context or just goodwill for a well-known creator, but I was missing something when I read this book. It's gotten a lot of praise, around the world, since it was originally published in Italy in 2007, so this could easily be a problem on my end. But this felt like a long, self-indulgent shaggy-dog story that - ironically - had some quite nice art along the way, but didn't actually tell its story in a clear or coherent way.

Also, is the title really supposed to be MBDL, with "My Badly Drawn Life" as just the subtitle? That's a level of self-indulgence well beyond the normal range. [1]

MBDL - I'll use the abbreviation, since it does seem to be official - was a mid-career book by Gipi (Gianni Pacinotti), who seems to be most famous as a cartoonist for his previous project, Notes for a War Story. It was translated into English by Jamie Richards for publication last year, which implies (to me, at least) that it was seen as a more difficult book than War Story, which was translated more quickly.

(I don't know if this is at all related, but Gipi seems to be one of those modern entrepreneurial/artistic types who are all over the place. Besides doing full-length BD books, he's also made multiple films and a card game.)

OK, so MBDL is not the story of Gipi's life. Or, rather, it's a loose and discursive memoir that circles one aspect of his life, in a very wordy, heavily narrated, almost sketchbook style most of the time. To be blunt, it's a Medical Problem Memoir, but it's told in a very obfuscating way, maybe because the subject is embarrassing and maybe just because that's the way Gipi works.

The medical problem...well, Gipi never talks about it in any medical detail, which is part of the problem. He also - admittedly, in his notes at the end - says that this book is only about the doctors that didn't help him, who were "bad guys," because he only cares about "bad guys." (Cf.: one of the other threads of the book, in which Gipi mythologizes his teenage, or maybe young-adult group of ne'er-do-well friends, who do the usual young-man incredibly stupid things and manage not to die from any of it.)

What Gipi says on the first page is "I told him about this thing I have on my peen." He also repeatedly refers to his ailment as something that turned him into a "sexual spastic, a Bobby Brown."

And, I'm just, um, what?

He uses those same words over and over again. Never actually calls it a penis or cock or John Thomas, just "his peen," like a snickering ten-year-old boy. Never says what the thing is - a lesion? an erectile dysfunction? some kind of fungus? a discoloration? the yawning mouth of hell? the head of Ronald Reagan? Never explains - does he mean "sexual spastic" in that he avoids sex, because this thing is painful or off-putting or both? Or does it affect how he has sex?

And what the hell is "a Bobby Brown" in this context? My Prerogative Bobby Brown? I can't even come up with options here; it's just a huge "what the fuck does that mean?"

I spent all my time reading MBDL trying to figure out what the deal was with Gipi's peen, which is annoying and frustrating, particularly once I realized he never would do anything but say those three things over and over again.

MBDL is a fairly long graphic novel - about a hundred and twenty dense pages, full of narration and words. Not of detail - Gipi uses the same words and ideas over and over again, about everything else as much as his peen. We see the crazy friends of his youth, over and over again. We see him talk to doctors, who are all useless at best.

And we slowly get more details about an event that happened when he was ten, at night in a room he shared with his eight-years-older sister. Somehow - we never learn why or how or even much of what - a "bad man," "the man in the dark" came into that room and threatened them. It sounds like a stranger, an intruder, but even that isn't clear. The Bad Man threatened to rape Gipi's sister, but (I think) was unsuccessful.

Let me be blunt. MBDL is the story of how Gipi associated some kind of penis-related deformity he had in early adulthood with his trauma from being powerless to protect his sister from sexual violence when he was a child, and how that trauma apparently led him to consider all strange men as horrible monsters and yet not to ever question the sexist nonsense he and his close friends stewed in all day every day.

One of the things I'm most uneasy about is Gipi making this all about him. On the one hand, he's the one telling it, and he's clearly deeply wrapped up in his own head. But the core traumatic event is not about him. How did his sister react to this? Has she had medical problems? How did she get "the bad man" to leave? What actually happened?

I frankly don't care that this made Gipi sad and that he later had "a thing on his peen." I worry about the woman who was almost raped, especially since the "almost" is partially a guess.

On the positive side, it is not badly drawn. There's a fictional thread, which I won't spoil, that's fully painted and looks amazing. I also would not call it badly written, though Gipi writes frustratingly and elliptically at all times. If I were God of Books, I would force it to be retitled My Badly Explained Penis.

Gipi is a fine cartoonist and observer: there are great pages and sequences here, and his work is engaging throughout. But there's a massive lack at the center of the book that I could never get around, and I can't really call it successful because of that.

[1] Answering my own question: the Italian original is LMVDM: La mia vita disegnata male, so, yes, this does seem to be very deliberate.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Dog Butts and Love. And Stuff Like That. And Cats. by Jim Benton

I think this is the first book I've ever seen with three periods in the title. I don't see periods in titles a whole lot. Colons, definitely - there was a time, especially back in my SFBC days, when a day didn't go by without a book with multiple colons [1] - but periods are much rarer.

The old grammarian in me wants to insist that this title has three periods but not three sentences, since they're all fragments, but that guy's a dull fuddy-duddy, and who cares what he says, anyway?

Anyway: Dog Butts and Love. And Stuff Like That. And Cats. A collection of humorous comics - mostly multi-panel, but not falling into any regular format like 4-koma or daily newspaper strip - by Jim Benton, originally posted on this here Internet more than a decade ago and collected into this book in 2014 by the fine folks at NBM. Benton is a very prolific creator of comics-like stuff and illustrated prose, though most of his output has been licensed properties [2] and/or for younger readers, so you might not know his work.

But he brought the world It's Happy Bunny (the '00s icon with a sunny little figure and captions like "hi, loser"), Dear Dumb Diary and Frannie K. Stein, among about a dozen others. So you have definitely seen his work, even if you don't know the name. If you have had contact with younger readers over about the past twenty-five years, they likely read and enjoyed Benton stuff.

This, though, is different: the same snarky attitude, but aimed at adults, and originally thrown out into the world (on Reddit) randomly and not part of any commercial enterprise.

Some of them are sweet or life-affirming, but most of them are darker than that - it's humor, and darkness is just funnier than happiness. There's a lot of random death, a fair bit of directed death, and several boob jokes.(Benton is a man, so they're men's boob jokes, along the lines of "aren't they awesome?" Women's boob jokes tend to be more like "hey, this bra doesn't make me feel like killing someone!")

Humor is always subjective. The edgier, more adult or mean it is, the more so. Benton, here, is getting pretty solidly into that territory - that's the point, I think, since he did so much other work where he couldn't swear, and tween girls aren't really into his kind of boob jokes - so your reaction will depend heavily on whether you like that kind of humor. (And the cover + title might make you think this is an inoffensive "cute animals are cute!" kind of fluff, which it is definitely not.)

For me, this is good and fun. I've already added Benton's ongoing similar output on GoComics, and have noticed that he has a second similar collection, Man, I Hate Cursive, which I expect to be getting to soon.

[1] e.g. Stellar Conflicts: Check Out Our Brand New Continuity: Decisions and Dogfights: Dogfights, Part II. Likely 12th in a sequence of 92.

[2] As far as I can tell, they're mostly properties he licensed to publishers and merch vendors, which is the way things should be. But the term often means "work for hire," which is the opposite.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Tik-Tok by John Sladek

Everyone has a favorite killer-robot story; this is mine.

Tik-Tok is a 1983 novel by the American writer John Sladek, told in the first person by the title character, a robot in early 21st century America whose "asimov circuits" have failed quite comprehensively. It is short; it is funny; it is full of malice. You should read it.

...what, you want more? Oh, OK.

Sladek was one of the great satirists of SF, with a cutting wit and a great eye for the absurd. He was part of the New Wave - my sense is that he moved to the UK in the mid-sixties to be part of the New Wave - and one of the few SF writers clearly influenced by the Surrealists. He's a mid-century writer to the core, steeped in cultural references both high and low and bred in the sterile American suburbs of the post-war era.

(The only other time I've covered a Sladek book on this blog - his last collection The Lunatics of Terra in 2007 - I said "He's a bit like J.G. Ballard trying to be funny, at times, and a bit like a nastier, updated Pohl the rest of the time." That still strikes me as a decent way to put it.)

The time is roughly our "modern" day, about fifty years on from when it was written. The traditional self-aware domestic robots are common, and Sladek does not shy away from the implications of enslaving sentient beings as property. Our narrator is Tik-Tok, beginning at the moment when he became an artist and took control of his fate. He will tell us his story, both what happened before that moment - starting from his first owner, and running through a garishly picaresque series of misfortunes and troubles - and how he became rich and famous and committed all sorts of crimes afterwards.

Tik-Tok is indeed a killer robot. At points in this book he talks about how he's trying to kill comprehensively, to see all of the ways he can be evil, all of the things he can do that the standard robot-controlling asimov circuits would prohibit. 

The other side, of course, is his past. Humans were casually murderous to him and other robots - and just as much so to other humans as well. Tik-Tok lives in a world which failed to be a Hobbesian one of violence of all against all only because robots were disarmed...but now they are not.

It is a short book; it moves very quickly and is crammed full of ideas, bits of business, murderous plots, and action. I can't think of any reason why any SF reader worth talking to would not read Tik-Tok.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Glacial Period by Nicolas De Crecy

There's a odd collection of graphic novels inspired by the Louvre museum, which has been running longer than I thought and has more books in it than I expected. Each bande dessinee is entirely separate; they're all by different people with different plots, and seem to only have in common that they all involve the Louvre in some way.

There's a list of the series on Goodreads; I don't know if it's comprehensive, but it's fairly long, at least.

And I read a few of the early books years ago: The Sky Over the Louvre by Yslaire and Carriere in 2014, On the Odd Hours by Liberge in 2010, and The Museum Vaults by Matthieu in 2008. I don't remember any of them well enough to compare.

Today, I just read Nicolas De Crecy's Glacial Period, the very first book in the "series." It was originally published in French in 2005, translated into English by Joe Johnson the next year, and the current edition (no indications if anything is new or different, and I doubt it, having worked in publishing) came out in 2014.

My guess is that all of the books in this series are about "the power of art" pretty centrally, however each creator defines that. This one is, eventually, though it takes a long time to get there. It also has a pretty major fantasy element that just pops up almost two-thirds of the way through the book, which is somewhat surprising.

Glacial Period takes place - so it says - about a thousand years in the future, when a glacier covers Europe and has wiped out all memory of the previous civilization. This seems multiply unlikely - that there would be a new and completely unrelated civilization at the same tech level so soon after such a crash, that everything would be lost so comprehensively, that everyone would still be speaking European languages and seeming to be European people after that crash, and that what's described late in the book as global warming would lead to whopping great glaciers in the first place.

Maybe global warming led to a series of devastating wars that killed most of the Global North really quickly, then the few survivors (perhaps in Brazil?) actively destroyed all records of the North, created some super-science cooling device that worked too well, changed their language to English, and went into a prolonged social crash, only to emerge recently? Oh, and bioengineered a race of talking dogs along the way, because why not?

The talking dogs are a definite, by the way: we see them, and one, Hulk (named after one of the important gods of the pre-glacial civilization, ha ha ha) is a major character here.

Also, there are a couple of panels that seem to imply how the catastrophe happened, only they make no sense. First, everyone got fat and lazy in the beginning of the 21st century. Then, global warming happened, really fast! (With a picture of the glacial landscape?) Only a few people "resisted" and fled South. There apparently was no one already living in the South to which they fled.

Frankly, I'm ignoring those panels, since they make no goddamn sense. I'm assuming they're wrong somehow within the story, for a reason I didn't figure out yet.

Anyway, there's a scientific expedition across the trackless icy wastes of the forgotten northern continent - it is so forgotten than Hulk finds a coin marked "2 Euro" and this is a major discovery of their name for themselves. [1] There is some tedious interpersonal bullshit that doesn't go anywhere or mean anything, but gives some slight characterization to a vague love triangle among the humans. (There's one woman, whose father apparently financed and created this expedition, and the requisite one intellectual and one man of action both desire her.) There are some other characters - a few other humans, some dogs like Hulk - none of whom are important.

It's not clear what this expedition is looking for, or how it's looking. They seem to be wandering aimlessly, hoping to find something sticking out of the ice. They have no maps or documents from the Before Times, as previously noted.

Luckily, the author is on their side, so they do see a building sticking up out of the ice. No points to guess what that building is. Due to shifting ice and the needs of plot, the party is split, with Hulk alone deep within the halls of what he doesn't yet know is a museum, and the woman and man of action similarly separate elsewhere in the structure for no good reason.

We also get a lot of panels of attempted anthropology based on the art - mostly a Delacroix gallery, I think - which is meant to be humorously wrong-headed, and gives De Crecy the opportunity to pop in a whole bunch of famous art into his book. (This seems to be the real purpose of the whole series, frankly.) This section is where we learn that our new civilization has absolutely no records of the vanished Europeans, which frankly seems completely disjoint with the fact that an entire museum of priceless artworks is still sitting, undamaged by time, under a protective snowball.

Anyway, then the fantasy element kicks in. I guess I have to explain it, though I should warn you that it's just as random and bizarre as everything else in Glacial Period. You see, all of the art is alive. Or the spirits of the things painted live through the art? Something vague and muddy in between those two points, I think. All the art comes to life to talk to Hulk, to give the potted history that he so desperately needs, and to tell him that he has to save them from the imminent destruction of the whole museum.

Because all of this art can survive without any damage whatsoever for a thousand years, but there's going to be a big ice-earthquake any minute now that will crush the Louvre and anything unlucky enough to be left within it.

Does Hulk do something unlikely and weird to save his entire expedition and all of the priceless artworks of the Louvre, leading them to safety across the ice? Of course. Does he do this in any way where the reader can figure out what is going to come out the other end of the saving motion? No. Not in the slightest.

Glacial Period is a weird book with muddy colors and baffling dialogue, set in a world that would contradict itself a dozen times if it made any sense at all. It is entertaining to read and full of great art by famous dead people, but I didn't find it plausible for more than two or three panels at a time. Your mileage may vary.

[1] Belatedly, I'm coming to realize the core issue of Glacial Period: it's of that classic genre in which only Europe is important, only Europe matters, and the world is essentially a blank canvas for European people to make their marks on. I'm more familiar with the derivative American version of that, where all the same but only European-descended Americans, who have kept the true germ plasm of the race alive within them, do all of those colonialist things and are the true lords of All Creation. (It's bullshit either way, of course; I'm just pointing out the two strains, and maybe why I didn't notice the older one as quickly.)

Monday, May 22, 2023

This Year: 1990

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

I only know this song from the deepest serendipity, and I love it even better for that. When I was in college, They Might Be Giants played the place, and I went to the concert (upstairs in a decent-sized paneled room, part of the College Center - not any of the bigger spaces associated with gymnasiums or such) with my then-girlfriend, now-wife.

The opening act was a band I'd never heard of, Grace Pool. I think they had their first record out at the time, but not the second one. (They never had a third; they never made it big. I don't know if they even made it medium-sized; I never heard them on the radio.)

They impressed that day, in that small room, and they sounded even better on record. And one song from that second record is my song for 1990, the year I graduated college: Wedding on the Lawn.

Someone to take care of, someone's idea of love

I think we did play this song at our wedding, which was not on a lawn. It's a bit too fast to dance to, and not quite as happy as a song with "wedding" in the title is assumed to be.

No falling back into yesterday. It's gone. It's over.

It's a song about something momentous, told emotionally, from inside - maybe call that at a slant. It's about a day, a time, when your whole life changes, when the world shifts around you and reconfigures. And I heard it when I was in the middle of those times in my own life, so it will always remind me of that - of graduation and new jobs and weddings and buying a house. 

And behind all that is a relentless beat - quick, continuous, simple. Like a clock ticking, but faster. Time at all of our heels.

I was also an English major, and so I guess I was poised to love a band with a name like "Grace Pool" anyway. But, whatever the reason, I did, and still do. This song will always remind me of 1990, of the early '90s in general and my early twenties in particular, and we all always love songs that do that for us.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Quote of the Week: Fire the Canon

More people should visit Antarctica, metaphorically speaking, on their own. That is one of the conclusions I have reached, one of my recommendations: explore something, even if it's only a bookself. Make a stab in the dark. Read off the beaten path. Your attention is precious. Be careful of other people trying to direct how you dispense it. Confront your own values. Decide what it is you are looking for and then look for it. Perform connoisseurship. We all need to create our own vocabulary of appreciation, or we are trapped by the vocabulary of others. Intensity, uniqueness, variety, specificity - these are qualities I value, but perhaps you will not. Size is important to me: capaciousness in a work of fiction, length in a career. What do you value? Why? Does reading have more merit than any other way of passing time? Is it useful to read randomly? alone? in discussion groups? bad books? old books? new? I wish that literary criticism could be built back up on the grounds of experience, closer to book reviewing than to academic theory, with a bias towards enthusiasm, with new Mathew Arnolds putting in their two cents about the best that was ever thought and said and new Nabokovs and Wilsons puncturing cant.

 - Phyllis Rose, The Shelf, pp.215

Friday, May 19, 2023

Groo: Friends and Foes, Vol. 2 by Sergio Aragones with Mark Evanier

I don't really know why I read this.

I know how I came to read it: first, in the Hoopla app on my tablet. More fundamentally, because I tend to look at what's getting published on this blog - I'm running about eight weeks ahead - and think "do I want to read the 'next one'?" So I'm writing this not long after the post for Groo: Friends and Foes, Vol. 1 went live.

I suppose I thought, "Groo, huh? That will be quick and funny, just right for a Sunday afternoon." What I didn't think is "and what the heck will I actually write about it?"

Because I have very little, if anything, to say about Groo: Friends and Foes, Vol. 2. Groo comics are what they are, and have been exactly that for forty-plus years at this point. This particular series is covered in probably-too-much-detail in the first post.

OK, there's one thing different. Friends and Foes is an episodic series, in  each issue of which which the main character (Groo, if you've forgotten) meets once again a recurring character from this long-running series. Those characters are different in this book than in the first one, as of course they would be. And they are:

  • Groella, Groo's older and smarter sister
  • The Sage, a wise man who is still not smart enough to know to avoid Groo by now
  • Chakal, a female warrior - supposedly sexy, though Aragones' style doesn't really bend in that direction - who is strong and smart and talented and organized and I think generally righteous and frankly more than a little boring
  • Weaver and Scribe, who are word-wrangler [1] Mark Evanier and letterer Tom Luth transmuted into reporter-characters in the story

Other than the who, the what is pretty much the same as the previous book, and every other Groo story. Groo is dumb; Groo causes havoc; everyone fears and avoids Groo; Groo is clueless. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I do tend to forget how wordy these stories are in between reading them. They're heavily narrated, usually in deliberately-lousy doggerel, which I suppose adds to the humorous tone. But I find it just makes things drag. They take longer to read than their frivolous nature deserves, basically.

I am not a huge Groo fan, which may be why I've only covered three Groo books here in nearly eighteen years. (The other being Groo Vs. Conan, which I read because...well, I'm not made of stone, am I?) I probably will read the third and final book in this series - in about eight weeks; watch for it! - because I tend to do things like that. But don't expect further Groo-bursts unless I forget the things I just told you.

[1] Evanier doesn't write the series; Aragones is the main creator. And they've both been reticent to describe him as the dialoguer/scripter, which is what it looks like he does from the outside. Somehow, he adapts Aragones' original words into what appears on the page, and he's done that badly-defined thing since the beginning.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

The Shelf by Phyllis Rose

Obviously this blog is an extension of my tastes and preferences - how could it be otherwise? It's mostly about books I've read, and I tend to read things that I think I'll enjoy. (I am human; I don't generally want to subject myself to pain.)

But some books are vastly more so, to the level that I feel compelled to point that out. I know I'm at least somewhat idiosyncratic, since we all are - but it's really hard to judge just how weird a person is from their own point of view. 

The record of someone else's quixotic reading project is right up my alley: this is what I'm saying. I've done "Book-A-Day" projects four times in the history of this blog; it's not surprising that I'm interested in oddball similar things from others.

This is one of the many benefits of an arbitrary undertaking. Define what you are supposed to be doing, and you immediately establish a whole range of things you should not be doing. These otherwise ordinary activities are thus transmuted into guilty pleasures, and their value grows correspondingly. (p.213)

I don't remember how I found The Shelf; I bought it seven years ago. I think it might have been on a "new in paperback" shelf, or maybe a "staff picks." The author was familiar: I'd read Phyllis Rose's Parallel Lives way back at Vassar, where it was secondary reading for some Victorian-novel course. However it happened, I picked up the book, saw it was the story of a reading project by a writer I respected, and bought it.

And eventually read it.

Rose was interested in the canon - how it's formed, which books get in and which don't, and just what else is still out there, mostly unread, lurking on shelves. [1] So she decided to read all - or at least most - of a single shelf of the New York Society Library. After some haggling with herself about criteria - since she didn't want to, in the worst case, get a shelf that was the middle of one single author - she picked the LEQ to LES shelf, with a couple of dozen books by eleven different authors, including the literarily world-famous (Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time) and the not-quite-as-literary but still world-famous (Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera), spanning from the once-huge (William Le Queux) to the currently-bestselling (John Lescroart), with a lot of quirky specificity in the middle. And she spent a year, roughly 2011 to 2012, reading those books.

The Shelf has eleven chapters; each one tells how she engaged with a book or author or clump of books on that shelf. She started with a thorny 1960s South African novel, One for the Devil by Etienne Leroux:

I thought it was a country-house mystery, a genre familiar to me - and beloved - because of Agatha Christie. But I was wrong. It was Serious Fiction. How did I know? Because nothing made sense. I did not have a clue what the author was going on about. (p.15)

From there, she reads the Lermontov novel in three different translations - if I didn't know she was an academic before that, it would have been plain there - and wanders through the rest of the books as she feels like it. Each chapter is somewhat separate, but they string together in order to tell the story of the whole reading project. I don't know if those eleven chapters actually describe the order she read these books. I rather doubt it, actually: she's too good a writer for that.

What comes across from the beginning is how generous and accommodating Rose is as a reader. She had spent a long career as an academic before The Shelf - she started teaching at Wesleyan the year I was born, and retired in 2005 - and is the kind of reader and instructor who delights in specifics of prose and in finding new things when re-reading the same books every year. She doesn't shy away from making value judgements, but always keeps them particular and personal: some books don't work for her in 2011, or she wished they had done different things. But none of that is ever the book's fault, or the author's, even when the book is objectively bad.

And now we descend into the belly of the beast, the worst novel on the shelf. I don't blame you if you don't want to follow me. You may skip the next four paragraphs. I'll understand. But should you want to know the worst, I feel bound to give you a taste of it. What is a truly awful novel like? It is like a bad dream. Things happen that make no sense and are never explained. The scene shifts abruptly and for no reason. One minute you are finding hotel rooms in Paris for a troop of Boy Scouts, the next you are announcing the Harvard-Yale game, and the next you are begging someone to pour coffee in your watch. Being thrust so quickly from one improbability to another produces a form of motion sickness. (p.224)

She's engaged in all of these books, willing to be the best reader she can possibly be for each of them in turn and ready to describe what they do well or interestingly, but never turns off her critical facilities or tries to hide her personal judgement. It's one of the hardest balancing acts in literary criticism or reviewing, a radical honesty about what a book does, how well it does it, and what kinds of readers are likely to enjoy those things.

I didn't always agree with her, of course. Her experience with mystery novels is quite different from mine, for example. I've tended to read them as moral dramas, stories about how individuals battle evil in their societies, more-or-less successfully, and she mostly writes about them as puzzles to be solved. 

But she's an immensely engaging writer, colloquial and deeply knowledgeable at the same time, describing her personal responses clearly and amusingly while also engaging with the depths of every book that actually has depths. Anyone can be amusing writing about how horrible a bad book is; I had a lurking concern that The Shelf might have elements of that. Rose is entirely on the other side of the ledger: she's looking for the positive things she can say about every book, from the South African novel that's clearly using metaphorical language about things she never quite understands, to the pulpy goofiness of Phantom and Le Queux, to that "worst novel on the shelf" I quoted about above.

She makes all of them sound enticing on some level, even the slogs. As if, maybe, on the right day, if you're the right reader, you would love it. That's a rare talent, and a wonderful attitude: I envy the generations of undergraduates who passed through Rose's classrooms. But anyone can get the same reaction, just by reading The Shelf.

I finished The Shelf faster than I expected, largely because reading it made me want to read more books. Maybe some of the ones she did, maybe entirely different ones, maybe a weird mixture. It's a book for people who love books, who love odd books, who love reading "off the beaten track," as Rose puts it. And it is massively successful at all of that.

[1] Rose is a clearly feminist critic, which may be behind part of that questioning impulse. She also spent her academic career championing particular books and writers, and re-evaluating many books and writers over several decades: that's the core intellectual work of an academic, at least the ones who take their job seriously.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Quiet Girl in a Noisy World by Debbie Tung

This was Debbie Tung's first book, back in 2017, so all of the things I've already read - Everything Is OK, Happily Ever After & Everything in Between, and Book Love - came later. And it's the same kind of thing as those books: light, positive stories from the author's life, focused on resolving personal issues and self-care. Her books start from her life, and particularly her issues, but they're not the usual woe-is-me comics memoir; Tung wants to fix things and live her life her way, so there's always a streak of "I did this, and so can you" running through her books.

In retrospect, Quiet Girl in a Noisy World prefigures Everything Is OK. This one ends with Tung taking a Myers-Briggs test, finding out she's INFJ, and having the usual happy "this explains everything about me" epiphany, which leads to her making positive changes in her life and, as she shows herself in this book, putting her on the path to happiness and success as a freelance artist.

OK, coming a few years later, I think depicts a slightly later moment, when Tung was diagnosed with depression - so, a more serious moment, at a time when her brain chemistry was actively harming her life on a level above "I have to deal with all of these extroverts all day long, and it's horrible." Reading them in the wrong order, as I did, does make Noisy Girl seem smaller and more tentative: I know Tung had larger, similar problems after this book, and the hopeful ending was not entirely justified by her subsequent life.

But this is still a positive book with a hopeful ending, drawn in an immediate style full of grey washes, that anatomizes a lot of things that other introverts will find true and helpful, along the way telling a big piece of Tung's own life story, as she transitions from academia to the working world (and incidentally gets married; that part of her life later grew into Happily Ever After).

I would bet this is still Tung's best-selling book, that it gets recommended randomly all the time and picks up new readers - especially young women like Tung, who are socialized to be friendly and outgoing and helpful and nice, but hate every damn last minute of that and need to hear that they can be themselves - and comes up in online algorithms and random social-media posts all the time. It's that kind of book: friendly, accessible, personal in a universal way. And I expect it will keep going along that way for a while - you may even yourself be the kind of introvert (young or not, female or not - I'm neither) that would find it fun and interesting and helpful.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Wicked Epic Adventures by Will Henry

This is the third collection of Will Henry's Wallace the Brave daily strip; it follows Wallace the Brave and Snug Harbor Stories. Usually, with a series, the advice is to start at the beginning - but any half-decent newspaper comic has to be capable of standing on its own, every single day, out of any context, providing a little moment.

And Wallace - if it's not in your paper (it's not in mine), you can read it online at GoComics every day instead - is much better than half-decent. It's at least all-decent: funny, involving, memorable, drawn with verve and written with a puckish wit.

So you could jump into Wicked Epic Adventures first if you wanted. Or either of the preceding books. Or, probably, the fourth book, which I haven't read yet. Or, as most people do with daily strips, with the daily strip itself, until you get the point where you want to read a big clump in one designed package at once.

Wallace is a person: a six-year-old boy in the bucolic New England town of Snug Harbor. His creator lives in Rhode Island, but I've gotten more of a Maine vibe from Snug Harbor - it's not near a big city, and seems to be on an island or otherwise separated from anywhere else. (Tourists arrive by ferry at a dock, for another touchpoint.)

Wallace McClellan is one of those relentlessly positive, endlessly active kids - the kind of person who has so much energy and crazy ideas that he would be annoying if he weren't so nice. (And, frankly, I still find him annoying some of the time.) He's also the center of the two semi-separate casts of the story, as often happens in a strip comic. One group is his family; the other is his friends at school.

His father is a commercial fisherman; it's a bit vague about whether Mr. McClellan works for a larger company or is an independent guy with his own boat and operation. His mother doesn't work outside the home, but is an avid gardener and surfer, and a more modern version of the tough, loving mom figure than you see in most strip comics. She also seems to be the source of Wallace's imagination and crazy ideas. His younger brother Sterling is less prominent here than he's become more recently, but he's a different and pure kind of wild child.

In school, Wallace often fails to heed the grounded, helpful Mrs. Macintosh, who is mostly in these strips to be a voice of reason when there needs to be an unheeded voice of reason. His best friend is Spud, my favorite character: a quirky, food-obsessed fussbudget who I suspect would be much more at home further away from all this nature and who gets dragged along on all of Wallace's crazy schemes without ever enjoying or agreeing to any of them. And then there's Amelia, who is still "the new girl" at this point - fairly newly arrived in town, with the take-charge, no-nonsense attitude of a girl who is smart, knows it, and has plans for herself and the world.

The core plot for these strips is still mostly "Wallace does something nutty" - that has changed a bit, more recently, with particularly Amelia driving some plotlines and the newer character Rose being a voice of reason that does get heeded, at least sometimes.

And the joys of a daily strip are in how the creator works out semi-standard plots with well-defined characters - Henry does that well in Wallace, which follows the rhythms of the school year (we get a summer vacation in this one) and relies on everyone's established character points for his storylines. He's also a light, visually inventive artist, happy to dive into sidebar visions and ideas, with a line that's always illustrative and loose.

Bottom line: Wallace the Brave is one of the best strips currently running, fun and distinctive while still clearly in the great tradition, with interesting echoes of a number of predecessors. If daily strips are anything you've ever cared about, you should check it out.

Monday, May 15, 2023

This Year: 1989

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

There are a lot of songs that I thought should have been huge. Some of them were decent-sized, but my big poppy favorites, the songs that have a hook that never stops and lyrics that bounce and a sound that pulls in the whole world, just don't seem to sound that way to enough other people to really break out.

The problem is either with me or the entire rest of the world, and I'm never going to admit that it's me.

This is one of those songs. In some better, purer world, it was one of the biggest hits of 1989, featured in a dozen movies, and is now an established cliché of the era. It is bouncy and lively and wonderful, a perfect pop gem. It grabs from the first chord, puts a smile on your face, and makes your whole body want to move. I have no idea why the rest of the world didn't take to as I did.

It's Don't Let Me Down, Gently by The Wonder Stuff.

It is witty and quick and smart, a kiss-off song to a former friend who clearly has done something horrible and unforgivable, though the singer will never say what that was. Instead, the song is all "hey, could you not have just done that horrible thing, maybe? kthxbai"

And for a song that could so easily be angry, it's instead uplifting: a happy "you are out of my life forever" song, of the kind that other, later iterations were beloved by millions. I blame society.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Quote of the Week: Cleaning

At home, when he stepped out of the car, the ceiling light popped on. Across the backseast lay a wet swath of blood. He was lucky he hadn't been stopped. He closed the door and went and fetched a pot of water and spent a half hour and two of his best rags scrubbing the upholstery, telling himself it was paltry sacrifice. It was a miracle, really, how much blood the body could lose and still go on. He knelt and dug in the seams, getting it under his fingernails, but some must have seeped through and been absorbed by the stuffing. Though none of his passengers complained, for weeks, whenever it rained, Brand could smell it.

 - Stewart O'Nan, City of Secrets, pp.16-17

Friday, May 12, 2023

I Have No Reason to Believe Any of You Would Know This

Did Europe Comics recently pull all of their books from the Hoopla app?

I've been reading a lot via that app - it's for libraries, and my system is a subscriber - and I've run through a lot of books from Europe Comics, with a lot more still on my list.

But the Europe Comics page in Hoopla is now blank.

When they announced they were "ending all consumer-facing activities," that sounded like they would still publish books (maybe fewer?) but they would not be marketing any of them to consumers. (Which sounds like a death spiral to me, but I am in marketing and may not be unbiased.) At that time, the announcement specifically said "you’ll still be able to find new Europe Comics titles through your preferred online retailer."

Their books were still available on Hoopla as recently as mid-March, when I borrowed & read a few.

But that was a couple of months ago, and death spirals tend to, well, spiral.

This question is brought to you by a guy who was expecting to read the fourth and final book in Manu Larcenet's excellent Ordinary Victories series today, but was stymied in his goal. He is not expecting any happy answer.

City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan

Stewart O'Nan does not waste time, or your attention. This short, sharp novel begins thus:

When the war came Brand was lucky, spared death because he was young and could fix an engine, unlike his wife Katya and his mother and father and baby sister Giggi, unlike his grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins.

It is late 1945. Brand survived camps and everything else, from Russians and Germans, to make it from Latvia, where there was nothing left for him, to Jerusalem, where he could not arrive legally. He works as a cab driver, and is part of a underground cell agitating for an independent Israeli state and the end of British rule.

He is a Jew. He is a terrorist, by most definitions. He is profoundly damaged and haunted by his dead wife. He admires Asher, the head of his cell, and distrusts some of their allies as his group aligns with more aggressive, violent elements of the resistance. He is trying not to be in love with Eva, an older actress in their cell who he drives to various events and assignations and who he also sleeps with in what he tries not to think of a a parody of a normal relationship.

He is a man who wants to understand things, to work out the details. He does that reflexively, all the time. And that's dangerous in a revolutionary cell, where each person knows only a few small things and does what they are asked to further the cause without understanding why or even much of what.

City of Secrets runs through a few momentous months in Brand's life, from late 1945 through early 1946. Its publisher billed it as a thriller, which is not wrong, but it's a literary novel more than anything. It's not about what Brand does, but about who he is, what he decides and how he changes.

O'Nan, in my experience, is always a powerful, emotionally resonant writer, no matter what his subject matter. And his subjects vary hugely: 19th century undertakers, dead teenagers, spree killers, middle-aged married couples looking for a big win, closing restaurants. This 2016 novel is a good first book for new O'Nan readers, with some nods to genre fiction - historical, thriller - as hooks for readers who like those things. But I would recommend all of his books; I've been hugely impressed by all the ones I've read and they keep me looking at the shelf of the rest thinking about when to get to the next one.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

It's Lonely at the Centre of the Earth by Zoe Thorogood

This is all true, as far as I know. Zoe Thorogood says this book is the story of six months in her life, as filtered through her own head. But everything everyone ever sees or knows is filtered through their heads, so that's reality as best we know it, always.

It's Lonely at the Centre of the Earth is the name - I guess you'd call it a graphic novel, since it's in comics format. Or maybe a comics memoir, or graphic non-fiction.

I suspect it's vastly more carefully constructed and conceived than it seems to be: the best works of art always have a lot of prep-work and invisible details. Centre of the Earth says it's the comics pages that Thorogood made during this stretch of time, to be a GN memoir, to chronicle an expected trip from her native England to the US for the first time.

She also says, up front, that she wants it to be a positive story, a particular kind of story - one of those "learn to live with yourself" stories, the kind with a quirky girl who gets better.

If this were a movie, the audience would leave the cinema feeling fine, maybe bordering on pleasant. But this isn't a movie - and I've been considering stabbing myself in the neck with a sharp knife.

Her previous GN was that kind of story, fictional. It got good reviews. Thorogood sees the parallels. She doesn't explicitly say why this new book is autobiographical, but Center of the Earth is all about art. She cares a lot about making art: drawing comics pages, telling stories, turning her own pain and confusion into something better and maybe, just maybe, getting one of those quirky-girl endings for herself along the way.

It's not impossible, right? If you treat your life as a story, and tell that story really well, you can get the right ending, can't you?

How Thorogood works through that is what happens in Center of the Earth. She doesn't talk about any particular diagnosis - I get the sense that institutions have not done well by her, that whatever peace and balance she's found has been hard-fought, and not aided by medication or therapy or diagnoses, even as a reader suspects any or all of those things, done right, would be hugely positive for her.

Call it depression, I guess, if you need a name to hang on it. Suicidal ideation at times. Thorogood draws it as a grinning tall devilish figure, mostly a dark silhouette with what looks like a frozen mask for a face. It's there a lot of the time, lurking around the edges of a lot of these pages. That's what it's like: it's always there, somewhere, sometimes more prominently than others. Whispering to her, saying unpleasant things she can't unhear.

Thorogood draws herself many different ways: there's a realistic version of herself, at her current age, that is more or less the "protagonist" of the book. But there are also younger Zoes, at several ages. There's also a cartoony-headed version that takes over page-space for long stretches - I think the cartoon version is the maker of comics and the realistic one is the character in the story, since they interact with each other.

All of the versions of Thorogood interact with each other. At times it's a little cluster of Zoes, though, as you might expect from someone this hermetic and lonely, they're not much of a support group.

The pages circle those core concerns: living the story, telling the story, constructing the story. Living in the world, the way she wants or can, the way the world wants her to, the way maybe she can get to someday. Planning for that big trip, having it cancelled once, planning again, finally going.

I'm making this sound messy and complex, but it isn't. It's organic and straightforward and personal. It's Zoe Thorogood's story, told by all of the Zoe Thorogoods. It doesn't quite go the way she wants it to, and that's a large part of what Center of the Earth is about: what you want, what you get, what you make of it.

Her art is inventive and quick and supple, changing modes and styles within individual panels and mixing up levels of representation all the time. I've never seen her work before, but she has some serious art chops, and brings thought and skill and insight on every page to tell this story in the strongest, deepest way she can.

Centre of the Earth is masterful and moving; there's a moment a few pages from the end that nearly made me tear up. I hope that all of the positive things are true and that all of the negative things are overstated; I wish Thorogood all of the happiness in the world and a long career making books just as surprising and magnificent as this one.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Ordinary Victories, Vol. 3: Precious Things by Manu Larcenet

The first time this book was translated into English, a decade and a half ago, the title came out as "What Is Precious." This time, in a translation by Mercedes Claire Gilliom that I think I found more colloquial than Joe Johnson's back in 2008, the title is Precious Things.

What difference does that make? The first has the echo of a question; the second is more clearly in line with the titles of the previous books - Ordinary Victories, Trivial Quantities. Both of those are plausible things to want in your translated title, but you can't have both. Translation is a game of choices: of veering closer to the exact meaning in the original language, which can be more formal or clunky in the new one, or of aiming for more colloquial expressions in the target language, which can deform the original words.

Every translation is its own artistic work, separated inexorably from the original. Each translation is closer to the original than a sequel, but still a separate thing, as languages are separate things. And those of us who don't read the original languages are left like the blind men and the elephant, grabbing pieces, feeling differences, trying to decide what it was originally, in the land of its birth.

Ordinary Victories is a semi-autobiographical bande dessinée series by Manu Larcenet, about the purpose of art and life (among other things), so those concerns are in the book - and they may tend to circle when a reader encounters it again, in a new translation. Gilliom uses a very naturalistic English here; I noted that Johnson seemed to be trying to stay as close as possible to the French grammar and meaning back in 2008.

I read in English, so I like colloquial language I can read. Selfishly, I prefer this newer translation. (It was published, digitally, in 2016 by Europe Comics, a collective mostly designed to get other publishers in the Anglosphere to publish comics from continental Europe.)

Speaking of translation: the series title in French is Le combat ordinaire. I gather that's a French idiom; it means something like "the everyday battle." You could hang a whole essay on the difference there - the French focus on the fight, the American need to be assured of a victory.

There are no assured victories here. Marco Louis is a thirtyish photographer with a serious anxiety disorder and a career he's mostly successfully shifting from war photography to artsier work, with a gallery show of dockworkers turning into a book in the course of this story. Marco Louis is Manu Larcenet, to some degree, and his battles, I think, echo those of his creator - but how close the echoes are, and what the echoes bounce off is a much more tangled question.

Marco is also navigating what seems to be his first really serious, long-term relationship here, with a woman named Emily. In this book, she makes it clear she wants children: she'll give Marco some time to come to terms with that, but it's not a point for negotiation. She will have children, either with him or without.

At the same time, Marco is dealing with the recent death of his father: visiting his now-widowed mother, cleaning out a workshop, reading a diary of his father's that isn't as personal as he wanted, arguing with the brother who is also upset after the death.

As with the first two books, this is a slice-of-life story with serious depths, a story that is much more constructed and organized than it may seem. Marco is Manu, but he's not just Manu, and this is probably not "what happened to Manu" transmuted from comics to photography - it's a memoir-ish story influenced by Larcenet's life, that comments on or look at many other aspects of life as it goes on.

It's a deep and resonant book, and I'm glad I'm reading Ordinary Victories in order this time, and equally glad to read it in Gilliom's language. This would be a good book to read any day you need to face your own combat ordinaire.

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

I run hot and cold with Kazuo Ishiguro, I think. His early books, especially The Remains of the Day, were magnificent, and I'm still a big fan of his cold, distant, murky The Unconsoled.

But I feel like everything he's done since then has fallen flat for me, which makes me wonder if it's a change in Ishiguro or in me. I will admit Never Let Me Go has its strengths, but none of those strengths are related to the SFnal idea, or anything within a thousand miles of plausibility. The only book of his I've previously hit in the life of this blog was the Arthurian misfire The Buried Giant, which does not have as much utterly frustrating passages as Never Let, but instead meanders and wanders semi-aimlessly through itself to a muted and dull finish, endlessly refusing to engage in any of the questions it raises or tropes it borrows.

As I think about my memories of those books - and the vaguer memories of When We Were Orphans - and of what I liked about the early novels, I'm coming to think Ishiguro's protagonists are inherently passive. They may do things, but they're not the motivating forces in their worlds. And some plots work much better with main characters who actually have goals and aims and intentions - genre fiction structures deform in unpleasant ways under the weight of lumps who just sit there and let evil scientists harvest their organs because they are Sad Clones Who Cannot Love.

Nocturnes is not a genre book; it was an original collection of five thematically-linked stories published in 2009. I bought it soon after publication, but it sat on my shelves, weighed down by the weight of so much else disappointing in Ishiguro over the years. I suppose it had been long enough that the disappointment was no longer fresh, because I picked it up recently...and maybe that's what made me realize my essential problem with Ishiguro's characters.

The subtitle is "Five stories of music and nightfall." They're not stories set at particular moments - it's not that kind of microfiction, or Nicholson Baker-esque mediations - so "nightfall" is more there as flavor text than something intrinsic to the core of the stories. They are all about musicians; that's what binds them all together. And all five of the main characters are very Ishiguro-esque; they are all led around, through their lives, by others, even as they seem to think they have desires and aims.

Ishiguro is a literary writer, and the clump of loosely linked short stories is a very literary format, which means his skills and aims line up well with the expectations of the reader and the possibilities of the form. I still found the narrators oddly passive at times, but none of them are carrying the weight of a novel's plot, so it's less intrusive.

And what happens in these five stories? They're mostly about the other people the narrators encounter: a guitarist in a public-space band in Venice helps an aging crooner serenade his current wife for the last time; a dull Brit expatriate whose only distinguishing feature is his declared "perfect taste" in classic jazz visits married old college friends because he serves them as an object lesson in how they have it good; a young songwriter working in a mid-England tourist trap for the summer also gets in the middle of a spiky marriage, this time of middle-aged Swiss, with an unfinished song that triggers their respective optimism and pessimism; a jazz musician who has never made it gets expensive plastic surgery as a backhanded gift, complains unsympathetically about everything, and has a brief friendship with a world-famous star in the same rehab facility; and the story of another musician in the first-story Venice scene - a cellist who learns that his new teacher is not quite what she seems - is told at second-hand in a way that seems to act as an iris-out for the whole book.

As I said, they are all literary stories, all about people who made arguably bad decisions, people who aren't driving their own lives, people who encounter others more compelling or driven or energetic. They definitely all come from the same story-space, and they work well together as a cluster of stories. I found the whole assemblage to be pleasant but somewhat lacking, like a pop tune with a chorus that you can hum but isn't hooky enough to remember more than a day or two. 

Your mileage may vary; Ishiguro is a Nobel winner, so clearly a lot of people think he's totally awesome.

Monday, May 08, 2023

This Year: 1988

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

This is another "us" song, another one my wife loves too, another one that has meant something to the two of us for three decades now. We saw the performer live a few times, way back then, and at one memorable concert at the Beacon we were really close to the stage, on the left, and joked for years afterward that the performer was checking one of us out in the audience, but which one was it?

It was her. I think we knew that, even then.

The song is Like the Way I Do, by Melissa Etheridge. I've hit a couple of songs of obsessive love before, but this one tops them all. Even the studio version does, but I prefer an early barn-burner of a live rendition, available on a couple of Etheridge's early singles and then the deluxe edition of her first record. It's still the best single song I've ever heard from her, but it's also one of the best songs by anyone anywhere, and possibly the best ten-minute song ever.

It is not a song you would expect a couple to both like; it's a song about a bad breakup. (Pretty much all of Etheridge's first record is; it's one of the great break-up records.)

But, bluntly, this is a deeply sensual song, one that asks the musical question "Baby, your new lover isn't crazy enough to be as good a fuck as I was, is she?!" And who doesn't secretly, somewhere deep in their hearts, believe that they are the Best at Sex, at least with the One Perfect Person, the one they know better than anyone else, certainly better than that new...well, you get what I mean.

But, most of all, this is a sexy song, a song that you can scream along with in the car, a song that has more energy than some people's entire careers, a song that makes you feel alive and vital for the space of it's time. And it's got a rhythm that can't be beat: songs that start with a particular rhythm that you know instantly are always great, and this one does that from the jump. 

Because we've all had that moment where we want to say "Nobody aches, nobody aches just to hold you, like the way I do." And Melissa Etheridge makes that moment real and vital and loud.

Sunday, May 07, 2023

Books Read: April 2023

Here's what I read this past month. At some point, once the posts go live, there will be links. Not today. though.

Nicolas De Crecy, Glacial Period (digital, 4/1)

Josh Sladek, Tik-Tok (in SF Gateway Omnibus, 4/1)

Jim Benton, Dog Butts and Love. And Stuff Like That. And Cats (digital, 4/2)

Gipi, MBDL: My Badly Drawn Life (digital, 4/8)

Michael Swanwick, Stations of the Tide (4/8)

Maximilien Le Roy and A. Dan, Thoreau (digital, 4/9)

Liniers, Macanudo: Welcome to Elsewhere (digital, 4/15)

Jordan Crane, The Last Lonely Saturday (digital, 4/16)

Jack Vance, Cugel's Saga (in Tales of the Dying Earth, 4/16)

Vaughn Bodé, Cheech Wizard's Book of Me (digital, 4/21)

Joe Daly, Scrublands (digital, 4/22)

Bong Redila, Meläg: Town of Fables (digital, 4/23)

Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (in The Complete Novels, 4/23)

Neil Gaiman, P. Craig Russell, and Troy Nixey, Only the End of the World Again (digital, 4/29)

Emily Dickinson, Selected Poetry (4/30)

Drew Friedman, Heroes of the Comics (digital, 4/30)

Gene Wolfe, A Borrowed Man (4/30)

Next month: more books!