Monday, July 31, 2023

This Year: 2000

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

For 2000, I have another song all about the sound. The lyrics might be about something, but I doubt it. They have a sound, a flow, an attitude, a punch - that's more than enough. It's probably about hipsters, with some level of self-mockery.

But what matters is how it hits you: this is a song that jumps in fast, hits you verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-done and runs away laughing.

I'm already spinning in my grave.

That's Authenticity, from Harvey Danger, a song that jumps in with both feet and launches itself directly at your ears.

It is authentic, it is the third degree. It's no such thing.

And it's yet another song that's great to turn up loud, and short enough (barely two and a half minutes) to repeat two or three times to soak in it.

What could be better than authenticity? What better way to end out a decade, a century, or a millennium?

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Quote of the Week: Bits of Business for an 18th Century Romantic Comedy

Hints to the seconds in duels:

With a little water you must make some gunpowder into a fine paste, then roll it into balls, dry them, and rub them over with pencil, to give them the appearance of lead; these you must substitute for those brought for your principles: - Remember, in ramming them down you must break them into dust. You should also take an opportunity of giving the hat of one of the combatants a hard pinch with a bullet mould. After the parties have fired, which will have been as is the custom, together, you must shew the mark and swear you saw the bullet strike, and with great warmth insist upon it, that not only must the wearer have heard the ball, but also have felt his hat shake. You must not allow him to deny it, if he should do so at first, which is very improbably, he will not do so long. The writer having practiced it more than once with happy success, he now recommends it to those gentlemen who may be engaged to see their friends fight, and do not wish them to commit murder.

The Derby Mercury, Thursday 27 October 1803 (v.16, p.230)

 - Cox's Fragmenta, edited by Simon Murphy, pp.100-101

Friday, July 28, 2023

Impossible People by Julia Wertz

It's reductive and not quite true to say that this book is what Julia Wertz wanted Drinking at the Movies to be - but it's a good enough place to start.

Drinking was her first full-length graphic novel after two collections of Fart Party stories; at the time, I thought it was more of a collage that it didn't quite turn into a single narrative, but was definitely bigger and more ambitious that her previous work. It was also - I shudder to realize - published in 2010, almost fifteen years ago.

Impossible People, Wertz's big new 2023 book, is her first memoir since Museum of Mistakes in 2018, which mostly collected older work. (In between was Tenements, Towers, and Trash, a book of New York cityscapes and related material.) It's odd to realize that: I think of Wertz as such an immediate, confessional cartoonist, her work so direct and plain-spoken. But those stories were mostly about that late-Aughts period; she hadn't made any books about her thirties yet.

That's what Impossible People does. It picks up Wertz's life from where we saw it, in those Fart Party and Museum of Mistakes strips, starting in 2009. (I was surprised to see her at the Pizza Island collective, and realize how long ago that was.) It doesn't quite get up to the present day; this is the story of the back half of Wertz's life in New York City, and so ends somewhere in the mid-Teens.

And, as the subtitle "A Completely Average Recovery Story" signposts, Impossible People is centrally about her alcoholism in a way she couldn't quite wrestle down in Drinking. Again, not to be reductive, but that's probably because she was still drinking when she made Drinking at the Movies. You can't tell the story of your recovery until you start to recover.

Impossible People is a big book, full of spaces and people and thoughts and years of Wertz's life. As with a lot of her work, it's a lot more carefully constructed and smarter than her cartoony avatar tricks you into thinking. She has a great style for confessional memoir: this is real and raw, says that cartoon Wertz; see how simply I'm drawn, how directly I speak - you can trust I'm giving you the unfiltered truth.

No one makes a three-hundred page book of comics immediately, of course. But that tone, that stance gets inside the reader's defenses quickly. It's a relaxing style, one that looks looser and quicker than it actually is. (Pay attention to how detailed her backgrounds are, especially when she runs through all of the finds from her urban exploring - everything is placed just so, both in her actual life and in the comics panel.)

In the end, Impossible People is the story of Wertz's relationships. At first, she had one overwhelming one: alcohol. I won't tell the story of how she stopped drinking - that's what Impossible People is for - but she did manage to stop, and then had to replace that with people. From that point, Impossible is mostly about her friendships - particularly fellow cartoonist Sarah Glidden and fellow recoveree Jennifer Phippen - but also her family, some attempts at dating, the wider circle of cartoonists, and just life in general.

It's not a happy, uplifting book: that's unlikely for a book about recovery to begin with, and Wertz isn't going to turn sunny that quickly. (Or maybe ever: I hope to see the books grumpy old Julia Wertz does in her sixties; those will be a lot of fun.) But it's a smart, thoughtful book - deeper than it appears, more sophisticated than the art would have you think, more insightful than you'd expect from someone known for something called The Fart Party.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Sinead O'Connor: Rest in Peace

One of the greats of my generation is gone: an incomparable artist and amazing voice, who made music and moments no one else could have. I'm sure you've heard the news by now.

I say "voice" and I mean that both ways: the instrument of her voice itself, which was thrilling in its power and control, especially the shock of it when she appeared in the late '80s. But also what she said and how she said it and the songs she wrote.

All lives are ironic; the deepest irony of O'Connor's is that the song she's best known for - and her version of "Nothing Compares 2 U" is both definitive and devastating - is one she didn't write. For those who only know that one song, and maybe the controversies: she was a great, thoughtful, thorny, deep songwriter, who wrote great pieces that showcased her great voice.

I heard "Troy" first, and that's still my deepest memory: that fierceness, the anger and sweep and authority of it, the way it was a mini rock opera in a six-minute track. It was clear from the beginning that she was going to say what she had to say, that she would say it as loudly and clearly as she could, and that it didn't matter what got in her way.

I think I was at the New Jersey concert where the "Star-Spangled Banner" wasn't played; I saw her at the then-NJPAC sometime in 1990. I'd have to dig out the ticket and google the news to be sure, but I like to believe it. It was an amazing show; she was an amazing performer.

Her first two records are the most essential - especially I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, a collection of ten almost perfect songs, one of the greatest records ever made - but she made great music later as well, though I lost track of her work the last decade or so. I probably need to dig in to what I missed, now; I'm sorry it took her loss to get me to do that.

Here's a quick widget of some essentials, in my opinion; it's mostly in chronological order, slightly rearranged to start with "Troy" and end with "It's All Good," one of her most positive songs. (I don't know if she would have liked that: positivity was hard-won for her, and I don't think she would want it to be assumed. But it works for a playlist.)

She fought long and hard. She was a premature anti-Catholic Coverup, and that hurt her career immeasurably. Looking back - and, frankly, as I think I believed at the time - I have to say she was right, every time. She wasn't polite or quiet or demure. But she was right. She was a towering figure, and she will be hugely missed - and what I miss most is the world where she could have been right and still had a big career in the '90s, where being that loud and that right and that female didn't mean plunging sales and a flood of scorn from the worst elements.

But this is the world we have, and this is the world she lived in. Here's what she made of it. She did a hell of a lot.

Cox's Fragmenta edited by Simon Murphy

I'm here today not so much to review this book as to explain it. It is resolutely un-reviewable.

So there was this guy, Francis Cox, who lived from 1752 to 1834, first in Birmingham (the one in England) and then in London (ditto). He was something like a linen draper, married with two daughters, reasonably successful in his life and career.

He read newspapers. He clipped and kept interesting articles from newspapers, apparently from his youth, since his "magnum opus" includes cuttings from as early as the 1750s.

He gathered those clippings into "ninety-four folio volumes, each volume containing well over 200 pages," which he bequeathed to the British Library upon his death and which still take up twenty linear feet of shelf space there. Each page, it appears, has a lot of random cuttings, and there are obviously a lot of pages (somewhere around nineteen thousand, if my math is correct).

This, then, is Cox's Fragmenta, in its full form: the ninety-four volumes sitting on some back shelves, deep in the stacks in London. Obviously a great primary source for newspaper history and just random history, though, if the full archives of the newspapers themselves survive - and I have no idea if they do - Cox's edited and random selection is most interesting because of that selection.

The book I just read is vastly smaller - smaller than you would expect, given the parent's heft, a small-format paperback barely longer than 150 pages - and is a selection of, presumably, the most interesting, amusing, and/or explicable cuttings, assembled by historian Simon Murphy for publication by The History Press in 2010. (He's since done a second selection, as Cox's Fragmenta II.)

And this is a lot like a modern "random newspaper stories on given topic" book, with the caveat that the late 18th and early 19th centuries were a very different place than our modern world, with vastly varying assumptions and ideas and norms and journalistic circumlocutions. (Which is my way of saying: at least once, I couldn't quite figure out what a particular cutting was saying, probably because it was about sex in some nebulous fashion.)

On the other hand, people are people, and that comes through here as well, such as this bit, which could easily have appeared in some outdoors-y magazine this past year, with the language lightly modernized:

Recipe to keep a person warm the whole winter with a single Billet of Wood. - Take a billet of wood the ordinary size, run up into the garret with it as quick as you can, throw it out the garret window; run down after it (not out the garret window mind) as fast as possible; repeat this till you are warm, and as often as occasion may require. It will never fail to have the desired effect whilst you are able to use it. - Probatum est.

 - Oracle and Public Advertiser, Thursday 24 November 1796 (v.12, p.253)

So this is quirky, and random, and full of oddities of all kinds. Some were odd at the time, some seem odd two hundred years later. I found the parallax the most interesting: the things that were absolutely normal then (dueling, baiting animals, the perfidy of domestic servants) but are completely gone now, and how people lived with those different signposts of life in a lot of the same ways they live these days.

It's a small book, full of oddities, and a fun one. It's best for dipping into, like any miscellaneous book.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

All's Fair in Love and War edited by Bob Eckstein

I don't know if this is true, but it seems plausible. So I'm going to pretend it is. A beautiful story is always more fun than a lumpy truth.

Bob Eckstein had a great book idea: The Ultimate Cartoon Book of Book Cartoons. Recursive, funny, salable. He got the Princeton Architectural Press to publish that book - yes, I know, but every great story needs at least one plot point that doesn't make any sense - and it was successful enough that the mighty PAP wanted more of the same from Eckstein.

So Eckstein has done at least two more "Ultimate Cartoon Books," with who knows how many more potentially to come. The one I just read is All's Fair in Love and War, with the deeply traditional "war of the sexes" theme for its cartoons.

All's Fair collects 133 single-panel cartoons by a bunch of contemporary artists, each on a single page, each one about love and relationships and sex and heartbreak and lover's leaps and tunnels of love and all of those cartoony things.

Forty-two cartoonists are included, from Marisa Acocella to Jack Ziegler, notably including three cartoons by Eckstein himself. (If you can't include your own work when you edit a book, when can you include it?) The most prolific folks here are William Haefeli (10), Michael Shaw (8), Bruce Eric Kaplan (7), Alex Gregory (6), Sam Gross (5 and the cover), and several people tied at 5: Edward Koren, Robert Leighton, Michael Maslin, John O'Brien, Danny Shanahan.

I think everyone but Ziegler was alive when the book was published, though we lost both Koren and Gross this spring, and I may be forgetting someone else. But the point was clearly to include current cartoonists, since Ziegler was working up to his death in 2017 - this is work from the last maybe-twenty years (possibly stretching a bit earlier), but not a historical collection.

So we have more same-sex couples than a similar book of a generation ago would have - meaning some rather than none - some of them with jokes specifically about "gay marriage" but several just with same-sex couples, which is what you would expect in humor. (The set-ups look like the world you live in: couples are couples.) But, otherwise, this is mostly conventional material with some modern spins - couples in bed, on couches, or walking together; third persons hiding in closets; couples talking together; and so on.

They're mostly New Yorker cartoons, since that's where cartoons like this get published these days. We used to have a big ecosystem for cartoons on random subjects, trade magazines and consumer outlets, but that's been gone for twenty or thirty years at least. So they tend to be a bit arch, more than a little urban, and with an emphasis on wit and wordplay.

I like that kind of cartoon, and I like the work here: it's a bunch of good stuff by good creators, and it's nice to see that the ecosystem for single-panel cartoons, as endangered as it is, has not completely been eliminated yet.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

The P. Craig Russell Library of Opera Adaptations, Vol. 2

I love idiosyncrasy. Even if I'm not as into Idea X as a creator is, the fact that creator is so into it is appealing - I like to see the things creators are passionate about, the things they have to do, even if it doesn't make commercial sense.

P. Craig Russell adapts operas into comics. He's been doing it since nearly the beginning of his career, and I see from his bibliography list on Wikipedia that he has a few adaptations of songs from this past decade, though they're still unpublished.

And what I have today is the second book collecting that work, the grandly titled The P. Craig Russell Library of Opera Adapations, Vol. 2. (It followed a full-volume version of Mozart's The Magic Flute and was followed by a third miscellaneous book; with those songs from the past few years, there may be enough material for a Vol. 4 at this point.) It's a 2003 book, collecting four adaptations spanning the late '70s to the late '90s, and Russell worked with different collaborators on each of them, some more involved than others. I'll take them each separately: Parsifal, Songs by Mahler, Ariane & Bluebeard, and I Pagliacci.

Parsifal is the oldest piece here, originally published as a single-issue comic by Star*Reach in 1978. Patrick C. Mason adapted the Wagner opera and wrote the script; Russell drew it. It only adapts the second act of the opera, but that's enough drama and then some: Mason also adds in a lot of narration in that '70s comics style, some of which may transmute lyrics or stage directions. It's a very wordy piece as well as being super-dramatic, with an amnesiac young knight being tempted by an immortal witch while searching for a holy relic (the spear that wounded Jesus during the crucifixion), and all those words do constrain Russell's visual inventiveness here - it's a weird '70s comic, but still a sequence of pages of people explaining their emotions to each other at great length, and so not a million miles away from a contemporary Chris Claremont joint.

Songs by Mahler is the shortest section, with two songs, three pages each, from 1984. The first is credited as translated by Mason; the second has no credits other than Russell. These are more imagistic, less narrative, and much more successful as comics, even if they're not stories.

Ariane & Bluebeard is from 1988, and doesn't credit anyone other than Russell; so I guess he translated Paul Dukas's French opera and scripted this forty-page version. This showcases Russell's design sense, his use of color, and his eye for high drama - there are great, striking pages here, including a few wordless ones, showing he'd gotten to a point of confidence in his art to reproduce the feeling of the music of an opera without needing to explain. This is even more dramatic than Parsifal, largely because Russell is in better control of the material, and opera is super-dramatic - at least, the ones Russell is most drawn to adapt; I don't think he'll do Einstein on the Beach anytime soon - to begin with. The opera is the old Bluebeard folktale: young woman is married to an older man with a secret, who has been married several times before (and the fate of those brides is the secret), and she learns the secret, amid a lot of loud singing.

Last up is the black-and-white The Clowns (I Pagliacci), from 1997. This one was translated by Marc Andreyko from Leoncavallo's opera, laid out by Russell, penciled and lettered by Galen Showman, and inked by Russell. The art is striking, the adaption is swift and assured, and the story is presented well - a traveling troupe arrives in a town, and art imitates life as both the character of the leading lady and the woman herself have an affair, which ends in death at the hands of the title clown. This is less visually inventive than Ariane, but tighter and clearly focused - I'd say it's the best piece in the book, but that may be partly individual taste. (I like Russell's vibrant colors and big layouts, but find them a bit too much some of the time, and Ariane is full of that stuff.)

Again, if you want comics adaptations of operas, Russell is not only your go-to, but pretty much your only choice. Luckily, he's good at it and chooses works that adapt well.

Monday, July 24, 2023

This Year: 1999

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

Today, this week, for the year 1999, I have just one question:

Don't you wish you knew better by now
When you're old enough not to?

The song is Beth Orton's Stolen Car. The title is a metaphor. It's probably another break-up song: it's about something broken, some other person who came to visit the singer, and they had something together, once.

You walked into my house last night
I couldn't help but notice
A light that was long gone still burning strong

If I'm not careful, I'll quote every line, all of the ways I turns to you, all of the language about every known abuse, all of the questions about belonging. It's that powerful, that strong.
What did these two people have? Was it love, as the refrain implies?

While every line speaks the language of love
It never held the meaning I was thinking of

But maybe there was something political, or just social, behind it. Maybe they were too young, too focused, too much burning with that fire of youth?

You said you stand for every known abuse
That was ever threatened to anyone but you

Behind it all is that opening drone, another one of those great, immediately recognizable sounds that says "time for this song and no other." And that guitar line, as bright and questioning as Orton's voice, as the two trade spaces in the song from beginning to end.

I also love the way you can hear Orton's accent, those flat British vowels with so much of the North in them, throughout. So many singers try to sound general and from nowhere in particular: here Orton is a very specific person coming from a very specific place.

I'm embedding some random person's lyrics video rather than the official one; the official video is good and intriguing, but it follows the radio cut and leaves off the long, powerful guitar work at the end. And I can't have that, can I? Maybe, sometime in the history of the world, the radio edit has been the best version of a particular song, but I can't think of any examples.

I still don't exactly know what this song is about. I don't need to. I'm not supposed to. That's what makes it a great song.

I wish I knew better by now
When I'm old enough not to

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Reviewing the Mail : Week of July 22, 2023

Three books this week, all upcoming titles from Tachyon. And here's what I can tell you about them.

A Stranger in the Citadel is a new novel by Tobias Buckell, who I haven't read in much longer than I thought. I believe this is SF, of the medium-future lowish-tech sort. The main character is "the youngest musketress of Ninetha," which implies some level of conflict between polities, and there's also an "outcast librarian," which I think is meant to echo that old post-apocalyptic strain of novels from Fahrenheit 451 and Long Tomorrow and Canticle for Leibowitz. The copy unsubtly declares that books are outlawed, for example, but I have hopes Buckell is doing something beyond the obvious here. This is publishing on October 17th.

The Circumference of the World is a new novel from the prolific Lavie Tidhar, publishing September 5th. As I think is pretty typical for him, it's deeply knowledgeable and playful about SF tropes and history - this one is about a mysterious pulp SF novel, Lode Stars, which may disappear on being read or may be a hoax - or, knowing Tidhar, possibly both.

And last is Things Get Ugly: The Best Crime Stories of Joe R. Lansdale, which, um, collects crime stories by Lansdale that he and his editors think are pretty darn good. (I am actually a fan of descriptive subtitles; the point of a book cover, and metadata in general, is to make it clear what a book is and who might like it.) This one comes out on August 15 and contains nineteen stories that originally appeared all sorts of places, mostly in anthologies, going as far back as 1983.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Quote of the Week: Road Maintenance

Let the state waste money on that kind of thing! was the local view when it came to marking roads [for visibility in snow and other bad weather], so much so that it sometimes seemed possible that highway superintendents owned tow-truck companies and operated like the wreckers on the Cornish coast, who used to lure ships onto the rocks with false lights, then pillage the wrecks. On the other hand, it may also have been a combination of stubborn conservatism and stupidity, neither of which was in particularly short supply.

 - Michael Korda, Country Matters, p. 191

Friday, July 21, 2023

Country Matters by Michael Korda

I think I read one or two of Michael Korda's books about his life in book publishing during the '90s, when I thought I was going to have a long and illustrious career there myself. And I bought this 2001 book, with that vague memory in mind, about a decade ago.

Country Matters - I don't think Korda means the Hamlet dirty pun, at least not in any serious way - is the story of how Korda, then the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, and his horsey ex-model wife bought a big old house in rural Duchess County, New York way back about 1979, and the next twenty years of their various activities (and, as is traditional in books about big old houses, the expenses of such) in and around that pile.

So this is older than maybe I expected, a story of the '80s and '90s, set a few miles down the road from where (Vassar College in Poughkeepsie) I spent the back half of the '80s myself. Now, my circles at college and Korda's as a publishing magnate and rural landowner did not intersect at all, but a few references were unexpectedly familiar.

This is pretty much exactly the book you think it will be, written well by a professional, following the long rut worn by a thousand other urban professionals who moved out to the country, poured lots of money into various structures, and came to respect and appreciate the colorful, skillful characters who lived in that weird new land.

Korda and his wife had horses, so that's one distinctive thing that most buy-a-rural-house accounts don't include. In fact, she spent these years competing in various horse events, eventually hosting one such annual event on their land. And they kept pigs - mostly as pets, and those pigs appear early only to disappear for most of the narrative, since, unless your name is Clarence and you live in Blandings Castle, there's not much to say about pigs. (At least, nothing that is not already in Whipple.)

Otherwise, you know the drill. Everything is expensive, everything is complicated. Taciturn men in working clothes can fix anything, enjoy hunting a lot more than Our Hero, and have unshakeable opinions about technical matters (weather, construction, landscaping) which almost always turn out to be correct. Once you've lived in a place for a few years, you also start to complain that things are always getting worse - more traffic, more outsiders coming in to buy up houses and ruin the character of the place, and so on.

Country Matters is pleasant, especially since it's set in and near places I've known all my life. But it's a minor entry in a minor genre at best, and I doubt anyone has thought of it in at least a decade, even Korda himself.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Love & Vermin by Will McPhail

Writing about a collection of single-panel cartoons is messy at best, so I'm going to start out with eyes.

Scottish cartoonist Will McPhail draws very distinctive eyes - often a little larger, a little more prominent, a little more bulbous than you expect. The rest of his work can be expressive as well, as his urban-dwellers and random anthropomorphized animals lurch through their lives sometimes with a quiet dignity but often with limbs flailing wildly.

Those eyes are distinctive - large round white bubble with a precise black dot for the iris - framed in all of his different faces. (McPhail is a modern cartoonist; his people come in all sorts of skin tones, as long as those can be expressed in differing dilutions of ink.) Sometimes those eyes add a tone of incipient panic, or just worry - they're the eyes of people who have seen a lot, and know there's messier things to come. They also come in half-open varieties - the reader can see that they are large, but the lids cover half of them, for a hooded, often smirking look.

Great eyes for cartooning, in short.

Love & Vermin is the first collection of McPhail's single-panel cartoons, most of which appeared in The New Yorker.  It's a little over two hundred pages, with nearly that many cartoons, divided into categories like My Brave Little Opinions, Vermin, Nonsense, and Love, each section with a short paragraph by McPhail about that work, more or less.

Look: writing about individual cartoons is silly. But let me describe one of my favorites, which has three great sets of eyes. A Piñata is hanging in a bare tree, facing away - we see one wide-open eye on the hanging creature. A small boy is sitting backwards on a chair; he's speaking, and has a matter-of-fact look. Behind him is a girl, about the same age, with a smirk and a baseball bat. The caption? "Listen. I'm a nice guy and I wanna help you. But my friend Suzie here. She's a little crazy."

Great cartoons are funny drawing combined with funny writing, driven by funny, unexpected ideas. McPhail hits all three, consistently, in the works here. Drawing cartoons is a weird, anachronistic, maybe quixotic goal these days, but he's damn good at it, and that should be celebrated. (McPhail is also good at longer-form comics, as last year's In. showed.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

MacDoodle St. by Mark Alan Stamaty

OK, so this is an oddball thing. Let's see if I can make sense of it.

In the late 1970s, Mark Alan Stamaty was a respected cartoonist and illustrator, with multiple books for children behind him (and more to come) and a burgeoning gig making big, complicated posters for The Village Voice. The Voice, which basically invented the idea of the indy-weekly cartoonist in the '50s with Jules Feiffer, asked Stamaty if he wanted to do a regular strip in the paper.

Stamaty agreed, and started Garbel Dee Goo.

No, wait - the title of the book is MacDoodle St., isn't it?

Yes. Garbel was a smaller, one-tier high strip, which apparently appeared in some lesser, back page of the Voice - there are seven installments reprinted here, with a note that implies these were chosen from some larger number. (But that's vague, so the larger number could be, say, ten, or it could be just the way Stamaty phrased it.) In fact, the last Garbel strip here specifically mentions "I'd like more space. I hear there's a vacancy on Page 6." and has a street sign for MacDoodle.

MacDoodle, itself, was two tiers tall, like Feiffer's work, and the bulk of this book reprints what seems to be the entire run of the strip in 1978-79, in seventy-nine installments each presented on a single page. (This, plus a Feiffer intro, and probably the Garbel strips, was originally reprinted in a paperback edition in 1980.)

Then, just like the end of Garbel, the main cast of MacDoodle gets on an airplane, saying they're going to take a leave of absence. In this 2019 hardcover, there's then a twenty-page Addendum - also in a two-tier format - from modern-day Stamaty, explaining what happened after the end of MacDoodle (he had what seems to be a short-lived, more personal strip in the Voice, which could have been reprinted here but is not, for whatever reason, and then went on to Washingtoon and other things) and something of his artistic/personal state at the end of MacDoodle (to be blunt: not good).

Right: that's the material included in this book. But what about the story?

Those MacDoodle strips do actually form a complete narrative - I won't say "coherent," since Stamaty bounces around a bit deliberately, and plays with some conventions of the strip for drama and humor. But it does tell a story, from beginning to end, and basically plays fair with the reader as it goes.

We begin in the Cafe Fizz, where Malcolm Frazzle, poet for Dishwasher Monthly, is working on deadline. This is a Village kind of place, where ties are forbidden and beards (available for rental) mandatory. So of course the Conservative Liberation Front attacks the café, demanding both a place for ties and regular playing of Wayne Newton records.

Malcolm is chased down the street by crazed Newton fans, meets grumpy old-lady visionary Helga Parsnip on a bus, and finds himself in a mesh of circumstances that will end with his saving the world. (Via a fight on a burger-joint sign somewhere out in New Jersey with a fiendish madman who was once his high-school geometry teacher, to be precise.)

There's a lot of events, some of them seemingly random, in between those two endpoints, but it all comes together in the end. It is quirky and weird, but that's the kind of creator Stamaty is, and, besides, it was the '70s and this strip was made for a hip, downtown, Village kind of crowd.

Stamaty's visually inventive, crammed-full-of-stuff style is great for that kind of kitchen-sink story; the eye and the mind never get a chance to rest in a Stamaty story, giving a sense of tension and uneasiness throughout, shot through with whimsy and silliness.

I don't know if this is exactly a lost classic, but it was semi-lost and it's a lot of fun, so it gets at least 80% of the way there. I kind of wish Stamaty, or his editors, had collected all of his work from the Voice from this era - all of the Garbel strips, assuming there are more, and whatever the thing he did in 1980 was called - but then it wouldn't be a reprint of the 1980 MacDoodle St. book, I guess.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Shuna's Journey by Hayao Miyazaki

First of all, I should note that, as we learn in the detailed and useful afterword from the translator, Alex Dudok De Wit, this is not really a manga but an emonogatari [1], or at least closer to that than to a standard manga.

What that means is that Suna's Journey is heavily narrated, only dropping into dialogue balloons for three conversations in the same short stretch of the middle of the book. The rest of the story is told by a somewhat cold, omniscient narrator, in captions on nearly every page, and that means this short book - 144 story pages - tells a longer, more detailed story than a reader might expect, but also that that story is seen at a distance, that Shuna is not much like manga.

It's by Hayao Miyazaki, who is much better known as an animator and filmmaker - I think his "comics" work is mostly this book and the original Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind - and was published in 1983, in that uneasy period of his career before the success of the Nausicaa film gave him the foundation to co-found Studio Ghibli and move on to all of the other movies since then.

The Shuna of the title is a young prince, of a small country in an isolated valley - the story is based loosely on a Tibetan legend, and Shuna's country, the little we see of it, is vaguely Tibetan. Life is hard there, and crops are meagre, but a far traveler, before he dies of old age, tells Shuna the story of a fabled land, far to the West, full of golden grain.

Shuna, of course, sets off on his Yakul, planning to find that bounteous grain and bring it back to his people. He has a series of episodic adventures, finding other people and other lands - none of which are friendly or full of grain - eventually finding the source of the grain, which is strange and fantastic. (And which I will not describe; you need to read the book to experience it.)

He succeeds, sort of, with the help of a young woman, Thea, who he saved during his travels through the dangerous lands. She saves him in turn, in a different way, and they bring the fast-growing grain to a village of mostly friendly people. At the very end, he and Thea are poised for another journey, to go back to the original pseudo-Tibetan kingdom - but Miyazaki never told that promised continuation of this story.

Shuna's Journey is deeply Miyazki-esque, as of course it would be. It's compressed and narrated, and lives on pages rather than in light and celluloid, so it doesn't have the quiet contemplative moments of his films, but the tone and style and concerns and visual world are very much those of '80s Miyazki, directly connected to Nausicaa in particular.  It's a quirky sidebar in his oeuvre, but definitely worth seeking out, particularly for fans of the Nausicaa manga.

[1] An illustrated story - the standard seems to be somewhere in between Stardust and an American-style picture book for young readers.

Monday, July 17, 2023

This Year: 1998

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

This might be a cheat, but I don't think so. Mono Puff was a mid-90s side project of They Might Be Giants' John Flansburgh, with a bunch of other people that I'm afraid I don't really remember or know what else they did. (Maybe they were equally famous; maybe it was some kind of supergroup!)

I've already hit TMBG once on this list, so that's them used up. But Mono Puff is a different band, so they can provide my song for 1998 - that's the potentially cheaty part.

Anyway, I'm here to tell you about Extra Krispy.

I'm gonna rock you 
Just one more time
Don't make me rock you again

I love that line - the twist of it, the SJ Perelman-esque yoking of two ideas to go off in a weird direction. And the rest of the song lives up to it, in sound and tone and attitude and lyrics.

What I love about Mono Puff in general, and this song in particular, is that it sounds like a side project - it goes off in odd directions, it has contributions from a bunch of people doing different things musically, it's clearly different from what you'd expect from these guys.

So there's a fuzzy guitar, and a pseudo-soul male voice up front, growling in the background. But the main lyric is in a female voice, above keyboard flourishes and some kind of funky bass line. It's a soul/funk song, I guess - not "white soul," exactly, but a geeky, quirky kind of soul that attacks the "this town is awesome" theme from an unusual direction.

It's like, once you get down in New York City
You'll never go home again
It's like, once you've had Extra Krispy
You'll never go back again

It is a goofy song, full of weird sounds, made by people obviously enjoying themselves and doing this goofy thing exactly the way they wanted to. You can take it seriously, but you don't have to. Extra Krispy won't mind; it's vibing on its own groove either way.

And I salute it for that.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Reviewing the Mail: Week of July 15, 2023

So I seem to have, without doing it deliberately, changed the title of these occasional Sunday "hey! I got some new books!" posts from Reviewing the Mail to Incoming Books, which were previously separate things that I could probably explain if I had enough time and motivation.

I've now changed it back, and plan to stay Reviewing the Mail...until I forget again, or do something else. Hey: it's an imperfect system, man.

This week I have three books - two that I just bought myself, and one that came in the mail. As usual, the one in the mail gets priority and will come first.

Enlightened is a graphic novel by Sachi Ediriweera that retells the life of Prince Siddhartha, coming from  Atheneum Books for Young Readers on September 26th. Ediriweera is a Sri Lankan cartoonist and filmmaker - his previous graphic novel was Lionborn. And Siddhartha is the guy later and better known as the Gautama Buddha. This is subtitled "a fictionalized tale" which may just mean that Siddhartha's story is more myth than history, or may mean Ediriweera is making some changes of his own in this version. I suppose we will see!

Tsalmoth is the sixteenth book in the Vlad Taltos series by Steven Brust, which I've been reading with great pleasure since sometime in the mid-80s. (It started with Jhereg in 1983; I may have read that before the second book, Yendi, came out a year later.) I'm surprised to see that the most recent book in the series was Vallista, five years ago; I've also posted here about the novels Hawk, Tiassa, Iorich, Jhegaala, and Dzur. This is fantasy, of the far-future variety, where it may all be SF really far down under everything if the author ever gave those details, which he will not. Brust seems to have picked up the pace and be aiming for the end of this series - he famously said it would be nineteen books, one for each of the Great Houses of the aristocratic society of this world, plus two more, and this is number sixteen - so it will be interesting to see if that affects the book at all. Brust is an inventive and voice-driven writer; these books have been all quite different from each other and - aside from background details and a certain inevitable amount of backstory - they mostly each stand alone.

And last is Ralph Azham: You Can't Stop a River, the third of four volumes collecting the epic fantasy BD series by Lewis Trondheim. See my posts on the first two books, Black Are the Stars and The Land of the Blue Demons, for more details, but this series is set in a world much like the Donjon series which Trondheim co-writes.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Quote of the Week: Intellectual Highlights of the English Aristocracy

Once again Lord Emsworth blessed his soul. He found the idea of his younger son, the Hon, Freddie Threepwood, whacking up English ends of concerns almost incredible. Years of association with the boy had left him with the opinion that he had just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wanted to eat, but certainly no more.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, Full Moon, p.11

Veronica lay thinking for a few moments. It was a thing she did very seldom and then only with the greatest difficulty, but this was a special occasion.

 - p.20

Friday, July 14, 2023

Inside Moebius, Part I by Jean "Moebius" Giraud

One of the dangers of being hot is that you will inevitably cool down. Jean Giraud, the French comics creator who was most famous as "Moebius" and also worked as "Gir," got very hot in the world of American comics in the late '80s, with a big album series from Marvel and various other reprints, so that most of his work was in-print in English thirty years ago, well ahead of most of his contemporaries.

There was a comics-industry crash soon after that, and the usual shifting of tastes over time. And the fact that it was Marvel that was so strongly into Moebius didn't help in the long run: Marvel has been famous in publishing circles for decades for being horrible at backlist, and they lived up to their reputation once again. So all of Moebius's best work was in print at one point, and probably is still under contract, but now is unavailable except in second-hand form.

It feels to me like Moebius fell out of the American-comics conversation almost entirely in the late '90s - the people who like Eurocomics cared more about more realistic, newer creators, and the Marvel zombies who liked his random Silver Surfer comics moved on to other random foreign artists working on Marvel properties. He kept working, as far as I can see, up to his death in 2012, but he didn't have a moment like he'd had in the late '80s and early '90s.

(In the past decade, after his death, I saw fairly new editions of The World of Edena, a big omnibus including some material from the Marvel sequence, and Madwoman of the Sacred Heart, a tedious slog scripted by Alexandro Jodorowsky that is vastly less coherent and interesting than their "Incal" series.)

The last big series he did in his life, over the decade from 2001 to 2010, was Inside Moebius, six big volumes of metafictional meanderings, with multiple versions of Giraud as characters, plus all of his most famous fictional protagonists (Blueberry, the Major, Arzak) and other surprising characters.

The first two of those books were collected in English, translated by Diana Schutz and with extensive introductory notes by Isabelle Giraud (who I think was Giraud's second wife; her connection is unexplained in the book but she presents herself as an expert in the work) under the title Inside Moebius, Part I, in 2018. There were two more volumes collecting the rest of the series; Moebius hasn't always been lucky in the longevity of his editions, but he's always been quite lucky in getting those works out into new markets in careful, well-designed books.

Inside Moebius takes place in the mostly-featureless "Desert B," which is apparently a complicated pun on bande dessinee, the French term for comics. There, a version of Moebius is central, while other characters appear, bicker and engage in philosophical debates, while Moebius tries to create new comics and to maintain his pledge to stop "smoking weed."

Yes, in the end, at least this stretch of Inside Moebius is largely an attempt by the creator to distract himself as he gives up a bad habit. I gather he did stop, as he wanted to, so it's a success on that level.

The other big thing Inside Moebius is about, and which might be part of the reason that it wasn't translated into English for more than a decade, is 9/11. Moebius lived in the US for years a decade or so earlier, off and on, but he's seeing that attack as a distant event here, not something that happened to people he knows or cares about or is closely connected to. It's a big moment in the history of mankind, and needs to be integrated into the philosophies of various characters, particularly those from the far future, who have a longer view. For some conflict, Moebius also has Osama bin Laden as a character here, presenting him in a somewhat sympathetic light by having him argue and compare notes with Geronimo, who shows up (I think) because he's an antagonist in the Blueberry series.

So we get pages of two anti-Western zealots agreeing with each other about the differences between shame and guilt, and the role of "desert warriors" in the world, and various other kinds of intellectualizing loosely related to terrorism and mass murder. Moebius is interested in the intellectualizing level here, rather than the action-in-the-world level, but it can still be somewhat disconcerting. (He said, in one of the larger understatements of this century.)

I've never found Moebius to be intellectually rigorous; his stories are full of people who say and assert things, or play with ideas, but then they fly away or something else happens and the implications of their supposedly-deep thoughts are left unexplored. That happens here, too. His art is also quicker and sketchier than usual - this is a more personal work, closer to therapy than to a carefully executed BD.

I'm going to come back to see the rest of the series; I want to see where this goes. But it's loose and vague and very self-indulgent, and can come across as cruel and misguided as well, so I'm trying to keep my expectations low.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Full Moon by P.G. Wodehouse

I guess I'm re-reading the Blandings Castle stories - I hit Heavy Weather at the end of last year, and now I'm a couple of books later in the sequence.

Full Moon was the 1947 entry in the series; Uncle Fred in the Springtime had also appeared after Heavy Weather. Somewhat typically, there are two young couples sundered by misfortune, whom Galahad has to scheme to bring together.

Unusually, there are no nephews involved, but two nieces: Prudence Garland and Victoria Wedge. Prudence wants to marry the apelike but amenable Bill Lister, who has worked as an artist but also owns a pub near Oxford, and whom her family (particularly her mother) find completely unacceptable. Victoria has just met the American millionaire Tipton Plimsoll, who needs to be gotten over a bout of jealousy and bucked up enough to actually propose.

Both couples are basically head-over-heels about each other; the complications are all external. (Unlike the Wodehouse books in which one or another lover gets angry and declares eternal hate towards the formerly betrothed, which lasts until almost the end.)

In the middle of both affairs is Freddie Threepwood, who is not quite as dim as his father Lord Emsworth but is still fairly dim. Freddie is now Vice President of a major American manufacturing enterprise, Donaldson's Dog-Joy, and is back in England on a sales trip selling dog food. Plimsoll owns a massive chain of stores that Freddie would love to feature the Dog-Joy, but Freddie was also once engaged to Victoria - it was a long wet weekend, someone explains, so they had to do something to occupy themselves. Freddie would also like to promote Bill's case, and schemes with Galahad to do so.

The activities are fairly low-key for Wodehouse, though a prize pig does end up in someone's bedroom. There are only minor impostors, no serious thefts, and the thunderous aunts are mostly seen rather than heard. But Blandings was always more serene and relaxing than the Jeeves/Wooster stories; this is no surprise. And love does triumph over all in the end, as it must. I don't know if I'd start with the Blandings books here, but there's a lot to enjoy in Full Moon.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Blue Is the Warmest Color by Julie Maroh

I shouldn't be the one to tell you about this book: I'm the wrong gender, the wrong orientation, the wrong nationality, the wrong generation. So don't trust me.

Blue Is the Warmest Color is a graphic novel by Julie Maroh - that's what the edition I read says; I see indications that the author goes by Jul Maroh now and is transgender and nonbinary, which adds another wrinkle to the story. But this presents itself as fiction, even if, like anyone's first big story in public, we suspect there are autobiographical elements in the mix. (It clearly can't be entirely autobiographical, for reasons that should be obvious.)

Maroh is French; so is their cast. I found the story to be in a older mode than I expected: a frame story, coming out amid self-loathing, the clear tragedy of older gay/lesbian stories. It wasn't nearly as 21st century as I was hoping from a book published in 2010 and translated in 2013 (and turned into a movie in French the same year). It's not my world, not my community, but I thought we were past the sad dead LGBTQ people.

The main character is Clementine, but we start with her partner, Emma, after Clem's death. Emma is retrieving Clem's diaries from her partner's parents. It's not really clear how old everyone is, but we immediately dive out of the frame story into the main narrative, and the frame is just used for occasional (and I'd say, unnecessary) commentary. The frame is distancing at best: a more confident creator, later in their career, probably would not have made that choice.

The bulk of Blue is Clem's story, starting on her fifteenth birthday in the mid-90s. She gets her first boyfriend, Thomas, is focused on school, has dreams of her future - the whole standard deal. She also sees a lesbian couple on the street, and has a strong, unexpected reaction to one of the women, with bright blue hair.

That's Emma. We already know Clem ends up with Emma; there's no mystery or surprise there; the frame story has eliminated that possibility. So I won't run through the plot details, of how Clem denies she could possibly be lesbian, how wrong and unnatural and strange that is, how all of her friends (except one gay man) abandon her eventually. I said this was in the old mode: all that is familiar.

On the other hand, Clem does meet Emma more seriously, and they become first friends and then lovers. Emma is nearly a decade older and already in a relationship, with the forbidding Sabine, both of which would be warning signs in a more modern, conventional romance. But I think Maroh doesn't mean any of it that way: this is a world where lesbians still live mostly quietly, out of sight, and young lesbians need to be introduced to that world and find a way in; they can't just declare themselves and be accepted by the wider world.

(I may be naïve in thinking the other is true, now or at any time, in my country or this one. Again: don't trust me.)

Blue covers two or three years in depth, and then jumps forward a decade to see Clem settled as a schoolteacher approaching thirty, to set up for the inevitable tragic end. There's no intrinsic reason for this to be a tragedy; that's unrelated to any of the main plot.

I would have preferred a happier romance; I was expecting one from the cover and the publication date. I'd like to think we've had enough tragedies about loves that can't speak their names, and that most of us are happy to name those loves out loud, even if they're not the ways we love. Again, I may be naïve.

But this is the story Maroh wanted to tell. It's a personal, specific story, and I believe the world and the people. Maroh keeps it mostly monochrome, in soft greys and off-blacks, with blue as the one pop of color, making Emma almost luminous, especially in the early days. Like a beacon, like a signpost to a better world for Clem, if only she's able to follow that sign and join that world - as she does, for a time.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Man, I Hate Cursive by Jim Benton

I don't have much new to say today, so I'm going to indulge my inner Andy Rooney [1]. I already regret it.

My library app has several kinds of things in it: books, comics, movies, and audiobooks. From the user side, they're just categories of things, but I'm pretty sure what's important, on the back end, is that they're different kinds of files: probably epub and PDF and MP4 and MP3. I don't really hit the movie and audiobook categories; I haven't been much into passive audiovisual formats for a while and listening to people talk at me (audiobook, podcast, etc.) makes my skin crawl.

Most of what I get from this app - it's called Hoopla, by the way, and it's awesome - is in the comics category, so that's the interface I'm used to. There, it replicates the physical look of a book - every page is there, just like the physical book, in the same order and in the size ratio of the book, that whole deal - and it's what I'm used to in reading comics digitally. Sure, sometimes I need to zoom and pan, especially where a two-page spread has been rendered as a single image, but it's all there and it looks like a book and I know how to interact with it.

Jim Benton's two books of miscellaneous cartoons - first Dog Buts and Love. And Stuff Like That. And Cats. , which I read a few weeks back, and now Man, I Hate Cursive - are in Hoopla as "books." What that means, as far as I can tell, is that each cartoon is a separate image (I'm going to guess JPEG), and they flow onto pages depending on settings in the Hoopla app, or maybe screen resolution, or stuff like that. So there are random blank pages throughout, I think because there's a blank line or two after cartoons, and sometimes they get shoved onto another page. (Or maybe those blanks are intentional? I have seen books of cartoons with blank pages - the Steve Martin/Harry Bliss Number One Is Walking mostly sticks to right-hand pages to make it look longer than it actually is, for example - but it's not consistent here, so I think it's an artifact of pageflow.)

As an experiment, I turned my tablet from portrait to landscape, and the pagecount jumped from 129 to 186, and blanks popped in after ever cartoon I checked. So I'm counting that as something like proof my theory is correct.

None of that has anything to do with the content of the book, of course. I just typed four paragraphs of random bullshit, only of interest to the few people who might read this book, or similar books, on the Hoopla app.

But what else do I have to say about Cursive? It's exactly the same kind of book as Dog Butts: comics by Jim Benton in a variety of formats (there's a clutch of New Yorker-y single panels, but they're mostly multi-panel single pagers), which are funny, generally for adults, and with the same snarky tone as his work for younger readers.

In other words: what I said about Dog Butts at greater length, that's true here, too. Good stuff: funny, vigorous drawing in a variety of styles, zippy jokes, lots of different tropes at play. Benton makes funny cartoons. If you like funny cartoons, read this. And I'm hoping we get another book like this before long: this one is from 2016, so I suspect he's got more than enough material already.

[1] If this doesn't already tell you how old I am, that's how young you are.

Monday, July 10, 2023

This Year: 1997

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

I write a lot about lyrics in this series of posts. About meaning and thoughts and ideas. I intellectualize things constantly: I know that.

But music is often about the sound. Maybe, most of the time, for most people, entirely about the sound.

And this one is all sound, all overwhelming wall of fuzzy guitars and driving backbeat. It's a song that always makes me turn up the volume, a song that needs to overwhelm. The lyrics don't really matter.

For 1997, my favorite song is Boys Better by The Dandy Warhols.

Oh, it has lyrics. There may even be some kind of story there, though I doubt it. It seems to be pretty straightforward: this girl bleached her hair, making her some kind of man-eating siren. So you gotta watch out for her. It might be a metaphor, it might be literal. Who cares?

It starts quiet, swirling, ominous. For me, that's the signal to turn this up loud before the guitar distortion hits about about the twenty second mark, to let it build and wash over me.

And then the vocals start: chanting, another brick in the wall of sound, just as important as any other piece of that wall.

It runs four and a half minutes: long enough to overwhelm, not too long to overstay its welcome. Play it loud, maybe hit repeat once or twice, and emerge refreshed.

And girls you better beware

Boys, you better. you better

Sunday, July 09, 2023

Incoming Books: Week of July 8, 2023

These "Incoming Books" posts are the ones I do closest to deadline - I'm typing this the morning of July 8, after doing a "review" that will go live on August 23 - and so sometimes I think I can or should give last-minute dispatches from the trenches, if I had any breaking news.

Spoiler alert! There is no such thing as breaking news for a minor-league book-review blog. But I did just get two books from Tachyon this week, so I've got that going for me, which is nice.

The Legend of Charlie Fish is the first novel by Josh Rountree, some kind of fantasy Western that comes with quotes from Joe R. Lansdale, A.C. Wise, David Liss, and Brian Keene. From some hints on the back cover, I think the fantasy element is water-related, which is an interesting addition to the usually dusty desert of the standard Western. It also looks pleasingly short, so I might take a run at it soon.

Flight & Anchor is a similarly short novel - I say this admiringly, by the way, since I'm all about short books these days - by Nicole Kornher-Stace, who I am happy to see lives in New Paltz. (Someone has to! Badum-tissh. No, seriously, I actually know where that is and It's always fun to see an creator that lives in a real, smaller place you know something about.)

This is somewhat related to a series Kornher-Stace has running; the cover says it's "A Firebreak story," and she's had five previous books published, most of which I think are in that sequence. I think this is a somewhat near-future SF story, corporate dystopia division - our two main characters are fleeing a rapacious corporation, which seems to have made them both super-soldiers and celebrities. I suspect they are both still quite young; like teenager young, maybe. Anyway, clearly the rapacious corporation will not be happy these two have run away, and hence, I think, the plot of the book.

Saturday, July 08, 2023

Quote of the Week: The Desire to Desire

When I was a kid and everything inside our house was familiar, cheap, and ruined, walking into the Pottery Barn was like entering heaven. If they really wanted people to enjoy church, I thought back then, they should make everything in church look and smell like the Pottery Barn. My dream was to surround myself one day with everything in the store, with the wicker baskets and scented candles, the brushed-silver picture frames. But that was a long time ago. I had already gone through a period of buying everything there was to buy at the Pottery Barn and decorating my apartment like a Pottery Barn outlet, and then getting rid of it all during a massive upgrade. Now everything at the Pottery Barn looked ersatz and mass-produced,. To buy any of it now would be to regress in aspiration and selfhood. I didn't want to buy anything at the Pottery Barn so much as I wanted to recapture the feeling of wanting to buy everything from the Pottery Barn.

 - Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, pp.200

Friday, July 07, 2023

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

I don't take notes when I read these days. I did that for sixteen years - longer, I guess, since I was reviewing a bit for some other outlets after my editorial career crashed - but I stopped quite some time ago.

Well, not usually. I did write down some slashing, unhappy prompts about this book. I didn't want to forget how much I was hating it, and the specific things I wanted to complain about.

I'm not as negative now that I finished it. I still don't like it: the memory of my teeth-grinding is still there, and I'll get to the points from my notes before long. But it ends well, and wraps up its concerns in a literarily smart way, which I have to respect.

All in all, I reacted to To Rise Again at a Decent Hour like a stereotypical mom, after some ludicrous display by a child I expect better things from. I'm not mad. I'm just very, very disappointed.

This was Joshua Ferris's third novel, published in 2014. I loved his first book, the workplace seriocomic oral history Then We Came to the End, and was less impressed by the more conventional literariness of his second book, The Unnnamed, in which a successful middle-aged white man has a weird problem.

To Rise is also a book in which a successful middle-aged white man has a weird problem, and my concerns with it take those from Unnamed and add multiple layers on top.

First, to define terms. In a genre novel, the main character is active, and drives the plot, usually finding resolutions to the problems therein. In a literary novel, it's much more common that the main character is powerless, confused, incompetent, broken or just stuck: activity generally does not lead to anything in a literary novel. You know you're reading a literary novel when every action the main character takes only makes things worse.

(Not just for a while. That happens a lot in genre as well. Every single action the whole book. Only introspection can save a literary novel protagonist, nothing in the world of samsara.)

Also, this is both an alternate history and a secret history. The alternate part is that apparently the DMCA did not pass in 1998, so our hero has no recourse when people publish libels about him online. This is a world in which the DMCA takedown does not exist.

The secret history is more nuanced, and closer to the core of the book. And it could very likely be a lie and a scam: in a reasonable book based on the real world, it would obviously be a lie and a scam. But in literary fiction, feelings and connections and emotions are often more important and more central than plausibility and factuality.

Perhaps I should explain. Paul O'Rourke, whose voluminous interior narrative makes up the vast majority of the book despite his utter lack of self-awareness and the tedious blandness of that narrative, is a successful dentist in NYC. He runs a small practice: himself, two assistants (only one of which seems to be a hygienist) and an office manager. He is thirty-something, with no real family: he was an only child and his father committed suicide in his youth, and his mother's continued existence is not even mentioned until near the end of the novel.

Paul is a Red Sox fan, the dullest kind of anti-Christian atheist [1], an easily distracted and short-tempered man of what seems to be slightly less than normal intelligence, and a tangled ball of unacknowledged survivor guilt: those are the touchstones of his personality, to which the narrative will return over and over again in page-long paragraphs from his thin and annoying POV.

He's not actively unpleasant, not a boor or a bigot. He's just the kind of guy who runs his mouth off - or, to be kinder, whose head never stops running through the same few ideas - until you just want to get away from him and never hear a single word he speaks ever again.

Here's one of my notes:

he not only doesn't understand his own actions, he's not even self-aware enough to realize he's doing things he doesn't understand. he's like a raw brainstem bouncing through life, pretending to have a theory of mind

So we meet this guy and, if you're me, quickly find him dull and unpleasant. But then the plot starts, which gives us additional reasons to be annoyed.

For no obvious reason, Paul has almost no digital presence. No website for his business, no social media. Oh, he's on Red Sox boards with one of those weird camelcase-and-numbers ID, but there's nothing that says "Paul O'Rourke, New York dentist."

One day, someone creates a site for his practice. And, soon afterward, starts creating accounts in Paul's name other places, pretending to be him. Paul sends angry emails to the website developer, and eventually gets unsatisfying, pseudo-philosophical thoughts from someone associated with it. His requests to stop go nowhere. He consults with a lawyer, who says there's nothing they can do.

The social accounts and website are updated regularly, and quickly start spouting a conspiracy-theory secret history, about the unknown Ulm people, who are unsubtly like the Jews, but more so. The Ulm are the descendants of the Amalekites, the Jews' first great enemies coming out of the Sinai, and so are even more oppressed, to the point of being entirely forgotten and never recorded in history anywhere, a scattered people found everywhere in the world but with no community or traditions...except this one mysterious guy, behind the website, claims to have their religious book, which no one else in the entire world has ever heard of.

This, bluntly, is so obviously a scam that the reader's already low opinion of Paul is lowered significantly when he takes it the slightest bit seriously. The idea of an Ulm people, tracked by vague genealogy and even vaguer genetic tests, is utter bullshit. Even if it has a germ of truth, which I don't believe, it would be at most a lineage, the rough equivalent of those factoids like "64% of people in Central Asia can trace their ancestry back to Genghis Khan." It's not a people.

Paul, on the other hand, is an obsessive who can't get out of his own way - did I mention he's a literary novel protagonist? I may be repeating myself - so he's all-in on this, badly arguing his second-hand bullshit with the people in his life and alienating them all even more so than his repellent base personality already does. In the end, it leads to a crisis, as it must in a literary novel.

OK. Ferris is a solid writer. I don't like most of what he's doing here, and I believe vanishingly little of it. But he's good at putting words in order, though he's not flashy about it. In fact, a little more flash might have helped: this struck me as a book that needed the unsettling rigor of a mid-career DeLillo rather than the goofy stream-of-consciousness Ferris gives Paul.

I can't recommend that anyone read this book. I'm not happy that I read this book. I wish Ferris would stop writing about middle-aged dinks who do bizarre things. But the world does not conform to my desires. (I know this; Paul O'Rourke does not, he's also deeply superstitious in the way of tedious sportsball fans and his atheism is suspiciously close to the old "God never helped me" end of the spectrum. This is the very last thing I will complain about; I will now shut up about this disappointing book.)

[1] Literary atheists disbelieve in a specific god, very strongly and usually with a visceral hate; atheists in the real world are more likely to say to a theist "you know how much time you spend thinking about whether Zeus is real? Exactly."