Thursday, August 31, 2023

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

People who read a lot of books have lists - maybe on paper, maybe in their heads, maybe both. Lists of things they think they want to read someday, things they definitely want to read but probably not today, things they want to have on the shelf but realistically won't read any time soon, things they've heard of and want to look at in person, things that sounded interesting when someone else talked about them, things that don't sound like their kind of book but maybe could be so what-the-hell.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog was one of those books for me. The first book from French writer Muriel Barbery to be published in English - in a translation by Alison Anderson - it was a big success and a moderate bestseller in 2007, right around the end of the time I paid lots of attention to general fiction-publishing trends. (For somewhat obvious career-related reasons; I had a vestigial concern for some years afterward but I was finally convinced that I'd been kicked out of fiction publishing permanently and could never make my way back, so I didn't need to care about that world anymore.)

I found it randomly five years after it was published - there's a penciled note on the inside front cover of my copy that I think means it was originally owned by "M. Cummins" - in a church sale in a random town. And ten more years later, it seemed like a decent time to pull it down from the shelf and actually read it.

Barbery, I see, has written more novels since then - including, amusingly, a two-book fantasy sequence called "The Life of the Elves," which I might have to check out - but this was the one that made her an international sensation, and still seems to be her most famous book. So it was a good place to start, if this ends up being a start, and not just a single book I read.

It's set in a posh Parisian apartment building: 7, rue de Grenelle, where a bunch of rich and mostly self-absorbed people live. We see this world through two alienated female voices: Renee Michel and Paloma Josse. Renee is the concierge of the building, a middle-aged widow with no formal schooling, a vast wealth of self-taught erudition, and an inferiority complex large enough to eclipse the sun. Paloma is a twelve-year-old prodigy, the younger daughter of a deeply bourgeois family who hates everything about that family and resolves, at the beginning of the book, to burn down her family's apartment and commit suicide (two discrete actions, she makes clear) at the time of her thirteenth birthday.

Elegance is mostly a novel of voice rather than action - it takes place over the course of a few months, as we get to know these two prickly women and their thoughts. They each have low opinions of the rest of the residents of 7, rue de Grenelle, both more or less for "rich asshole" reasons. Renee in particular has a deeply internalized sense of what a concierge should be and do, and tries at all times to appear exactly as she thinks everyone is forcing her to be.

But then - after an event that is the centerpiece of Barbery's first novel Gourmet Rhapsody - a new resident moves into the building, and charms both Renee and Paloma in different ways. He is Kakuro Ozu, a Japanese businessman long resident in Paris, whose interests and expertise aligns very closely with Renee's and who sees through her pretense very quickly.

(If Elegance were meant more seriously, rather than as a light satire and generally uplifting story, I'd do more than quibble here about the deeply exoticizing atmosphere around Ozu. All French rich people are horrible, but a Japanese rich person is cultured and exciting...mostly just because he is Japanese.)

The Renee and Paloma threads are entirely separate until about the three-quarters point of the novel; each of them is unhappy, each of them is hiding her brilliance and deep thoughts from everyone, until they discover each other and see something of each other mirrored there. That leads to the ending, which is uplifting, but I found also very very French.

Barbery is a philosopher by training - she went through the elite schools she has her characters complain so much about here - and that's clear in the thoughts and concerns of her two main characters. I might think she beats on a few hobby-horses a bit too much, particularly philosophy, that elite atmosphere and the related supposedly unbridgeable class gulf in French society. But those are the central building-blocks of this seriocomic novel, and we have to allow the author her material. Elegance is a cutting, passionate, rewarding journey through the minds of two women who are at the sidelines of their worlds, told through two excellent, very distinct voices.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Ralph Azham, Vol.3: You Can't Stop a River by Lewis Trondheim

If there's one lesson from Lewis Trondheim's fantasies, it's that you don't get what you want, no matter how powerful or rich or connected you are. And even the subset of what you do get will probably change you, maybe without you even realizing it, until you turn into a person the old you would have hated.

The world is vast and cruel and relentless; people much the same. Death is inevitable and often sudden.

And, as title character Ralph Azham is coming to realize in this third omnibus of his adventures, You Can't Stop a River, you can't get away, either. Running works as well as fighting does, or possibly slightly worse.

Ralph Azham, the series, is twelve books long; each omnibus collects three of the original French albums, in an English translation by Joe Johnson. All of the books have been published in France; the fourth omnibus, The Dying Flame, is scheduled for this fall in English. I'm going to avoid details about the plot of this omnibus, since we're just past the halfway point of the series, but I will link to my longish posts on the first two books: Black Are the Stars and The Land of Blue Demons.

Ralph is powerful and smart and sneaky. He, by this point in the series, has assembled a group of other smart and powerful people around him, and they mostly trust and rely on each other. He seems to have the best interests of the land of Astolia central in his mind. He is deeply unhappy about killing people and causing mayhem, though he's, like so many other Trondheim heroes, very good at it. He's about as good and grounded and honest a protagonist as we will ever see from Trondheim.

And we can see, like Herbert in the Dungeon series, the seeds of what would turn Ralph into a Great Khan-like figure. What's more, Ralph can see it, and he doesn't like it. But how can he get away? In a world of destructive magic and superpowerful artifacts, his very existence can be a problem to would-be conquerors or reformers or religious zealots or ambitious magic-users.

By the point in the series, the initial conflict has been resolved: Ralph was originally trapped between two vastly powerful, very old magicians, the King and Vom Syrus. Now Astolia is in a state of what most people would think is peace, and the magicians - the "blueys" - have better, longer lives to look forward to.

But nothing stands still in a Trondheim fantasy world. There are always other schemers, other powers, other threats. If you have something, there's someone else who wants to kill you to get it.

It will be interesting to see how Trondheim wraps this up; his work outside of Ralph Azham is mostly made up of single volumes, where problems are resolved, for good or bad, by the end of that book. Maybe Dungeon is the exception: it's more to the opposite end, a series of unsolvable problems around that essential Trondheim fantasy dilemma, an endless story-engine that can never be depleted. Ralph Azham will need to fit somewhere in the middle: to end, solidly, with some kind of resolution greater than just the stopping point of one volume.

I'm looking forward to it: this is a rousing, thorny, exciting series with all the set-piece action and sarcastic humor you can expect from Trondheim, plus a deep concern for doing right and ruling wisely and finding stability among warring groups. Each piece so far has been excellent: I'm expecting the end will be as well.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

The Agency by Katie Skelly

Katie Skelly is a fun, interesting cartoonist whose work hasn't quite connected with me. I knew that from her My Pretty Vampire, but the "fun, interesting" thing got me to come back for another run.

The Agency is a 2018 book, collecting a loose series of webcomics that came out over the three previous years. It doesn't tell a single story, but there is a through-line, and - as I'm coming to think is standard for Skelly - there's a core viewpoint and style that unifies the whole thing.

(I wonder where these stories appeared, since they're quite sexy - and my sense is that the webcomics world has usually been divided into the "no nudity! we're family-friendly" world and the "all sex! all the time!" world. This isn't all sex, but it's mostly sex: there's a lot of nudity, casual and specifically sexy, and basically all of the stories have have some sexual activity, though not as central and overwhelming as it usually is in a sex webcomic. I may here be circling the fact that this is by a woman, and so it's about things that this woman found sexy and wanted to put into a comic - therefore it's not as male-gaze-y and relentlessly focused on sticking penises into things as the typical sexcomics by a man.)

Skelly doesn't tell us what "the agency" is. But her main characters are all women, all introduced as "Agent <number>" starting with 8 and running up, sometimes jumping numbers. They have sexy adventures in which they explore things, are glamorous, and have vaguely portentous dialogues. They are in vaguely genre-fiction settings that don't entirely cohere together: a Barbarella-ish spacewoman, a model, a spy - maybe several model/spies. As I'm thinking is usual for Skelly, there's a '60s movie vibe, in the situations and the costumes and hair and the bright vibrant overlays of color.

These are sex stories, but generally positive ones. These women are getting sex they want, with themselves or other people or odder things (vibrating alien flora? octopuses!). The agents tend to disappear suddenly, as Skelly's attention shifts for the next story - they're signposts rather than people, characters who can be in the next situation for the next sexy idea. But they're mostly happy, and all self-motivated - they're doing what they want, getting mostly what they want, and enjoying themselves.

Again, there's no overall story. Each piece is basically separate, like we're watching some sexy short-film festival from 1968, far more woman-focused and sex-positive than would have been likely at the time. Their stories are vibrant and visually interesting - Skelly has a flat style, with quick lines and big eyes and ruled panel borders under those big slabs of glorious color - at times psychedelic, always distinctive.

Monday, August 28, 2023

This Year: 2004

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

Any list like this will have some gimmies - the ones you know from the beginning have to be included. This was one of them, maybe even the first song I thought of. 2004 was locked down from the beginning.

It could only have ever been Hooplas Involving Circus Tricks by Say Hi, the perfect droning epic of life on the road and life in general. I've loved this song from almost the moment I heard it, and I don't think I can tell you exactly why. Maybe because it has that great, unique sound; maybe the way it implies so much more than it says; maybe it just comes together, all of those pieces, in the way a great song has to.

It's loaded with references when the mime speaks about the biz
We asked him for a glass that might be clean
But he's too busy posing for fashion 'zines

Every band who lasts long enough has at least one "this is what it's like on the road" song - most of them are fairly straightforward. Say Hi - which is mostly just one guy, Eric Elbogen - is not straightforward. Hooplas instead is mostly a metaphor, or a series of interlocking metaphors, with circuses and mimes - but we know what he means.

Hooplas involving circus tricks
At addresses way out in the sticks

It's that feeling of waiting for something - in this case, for the show to start, for the point of the whole trip. The band is getting ready, people are telling each other dull stories. You can't hurry it. It will happen when it happens. But you have to get through the time before. The song has that timeless, endless feeling, anticipating and prefiguring, like a wave that never strikes land.

It's crowded, and we're bored.

And what do they find to do and think and talk about and obsess about while they wait? Well, what do young men ever think about?

The pixies in tight green little skirts say it's so much better now that it hurts

I still don't know what that means, if it's profound or just a good rhyme. Maybe it was an overheard line - I can see someone saying "it's so much better now that it hurts" randomly.

And I keep coming back to the sound of it: that electronic drone to keep the beat, the rock guitar that pops in and out for big moments, the singer's almost-whispering, understated voice. This is another song, like so many, that sounds its best as loud as you can stand, that wraps around you and envelops you for the space of four awesome minutes.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Quote of the Week: No Hurry

There is a great difference in boats, of course. For a long time I was on a boat that was so slow we used to forget what year it was we left port in. But of course this was at rare intervals. Ferry-boats used to lose valuable trips because their passengers grew old and died, waiting for us to get by. This was at still rarer intervals. I have the documents for these occurrences, but through carelessness they have been mislaid. This boat, the 'John J. Roe,' was so slow that when she finally sunk in Madrid Bend, it was five years before the owners heard of it. That was always a confusing fact to me, but it is according to the record, any way. She was dismally slow; still, we often had pretty exciting times racing with island, and rafts, and such things.

 - Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, p. 333 in Mississippi Writings

Friday, August 25, 2023

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

I think I read Day of the Locust some time in the '90s. I'd have to dig through my reading notebook to prove or disprove that, and I don't care that much: so take that as an unreliable narrator.

That's my primary knowledge of Nathanael West: I think I read something else by him, several decades ago. I know his name. He turned up as a background character in Stewart O'Nan's novel West of Sunset, which I read recently. And I had a Library of America book of his - Novels & Other Writings, which is the kind of title LoA gives a "OK, you're famous enough to get one book, and this is it" volume.

So I hit the shelf that book was on, and decided to read Miss Lonelyhearts: it's short, it's funny in a very dark way, so why not?

It's a novella rather than a novel, told episodically. It was published in 1933, and takes place about that time, in the depths of Depression-era New York City. Prohibition is in full swing, though the characters have no trouble getting and drinking epic quantities of alcohol. 

The main character is the male writer of an advice column for the fictional Post-Dispatch; he is only referred to as "Miss Lonelyhearts." He went to some relatively ritzy but unnamed college, got a good education. He's not worried about employment; it's not that kind of Depression-era story. Miss L and his fellow newspaper scribblers seem to believe, correctly, that they will always have work, in their current industry or advertising or something else. They're not worried about finding food or drink or keeping a roof over their heads.

The letters coming into the Miss Lonelyhearts column, though, are from people in different situations. Some potted descriptions I've read about the book online connect this to the Depression, but I didn't get that sense. The letter-writers are nearly all women, all poorly educated, all in bad situations, mostly because of men and fate and bad luck. (Mostly men, with the fate and bad luck caused by men. My reading of Miss Lonelyhearts may be solidly feminist, but I think it's all there blatantly in the text.) They're pregnant and unwed or sickly from having too many children or desperately poor with a no-good husband or raped and abandoned or a mixture of all of those things. They write in hoping for solace more than answers; they don't seem to think their situations can be changed, but, maybe, they can find a way to think about their lives to make it all less crushing.

Meanwhile, all of those letters are crushing "Miss Lonelyhearts." Look, West explains the theme, in the words of his main character, on p.94:

"Perhaps I can make you understand. Let's start from the beginning. A man is hired to give advice to the readers of a newspaper. The job is a circulation stunt and the whole staff considers it a joke. He welcomes the job, for it might lead to a gossip column, and anyway he's tired of being a leg man. He too considers the job a joke, but after several months at it, the joke begins to escape him. He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously. For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives. This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator."

From my point of view, almost a century later, I see a different problem than Miss Lonelyhearts does. He sees this as a spiritual crisis, and wants to be able to present a vision of Christian love and a welcoming afterlife, so these people will have something to look forward to when their inevitably short, horrible lives end unpleasantly.

I think that's bullshit, and that a wide social problem requires a wide social solution. Miss Lonelyhearts can't fix any of this. He could, in best Jacob Riis manner, highlight the horrible things happening to his readers and advocate - I may mean agitate - for systemic change. I doubt the Post-Dispatch would want that, of course, and it would be a very different book. But that's the answer to the problem he's faced with: not his own sad grappling with "Christ" and personal faith, but immediate change in the world to make lives better, in the way that the historical Christ actually did and advocated.

Instead, Miss Lonelyhearts drinks too much and tries to get laid - the first is much more successful than the second; even when he gets his leg over, it's not good for him. (Again, there's a lot of room for a strong feminist interpretation of this book: he's not happy in his relationships with women because he's embedded in a horrible patriarchal society and stuck in the role of  the oppressor, and on some level he knows it.)

The book is the story of how he falls apart, more or less - here a bit, there a bit, until his actions come to hit him in the end. Again, I found the god-bothering too much and focused the wrong way - it's all American Protestant "your reward will be in the next world," more Buddy Christ than anything I'd consider authentic. But that's who he is, that's the religion he was brought up with, that's the only way he can conceive the world.

And a story like that, about a character trapped by his own perceptions of the world, with no way out, is what we call a tragedy. Despite the bits that annoyed me, Miss Lonelyhearts is a good one, shot through with fine writing and crystalline moments and a darkly funny core of self-loathing from its hero.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Fortune & Glory by Brian Michael Bendis

I went through a Bendis kick, around the time a lot of the hip comics kids did, back in the mid-Aughts. I at first liked Powers, and then thought it ran at high speed away from everything that was originally good about it. I was mostly impressed by Alias. And I think I wandered away about the time he, inevitably, like every other new writer in comics, was fully subsumed into the Wednesday Crowd and started writing sharecropped superheroes all of the time.

{Spongebob Narrator Voice: Fifteen Years Later}

I just re-read Fortune & Glory, his least representative book. It was there in the app I used to find comics, since this spiffy new edition was just published in May, and I'm always up for nonfiction these days - the curse of the middle-aged man.

I see I didn't actually review Fortune the first time I read it, back in 2007, so I might as well go into some of the details here. Bendis created this - he started off as a writer-artist, which might be forgotten, since he's been just writing for a long time now - as a three-issue miniseries back in 1999. He'd done a few comics, mostly self-published, at that point - Goldfish, Jinx, Torso - all of which were dark mysteries and most of which I think were set in his native Cleveland. He was "hot" in the way it usually happens, though I doubt a self-publishing mystery series would pop now: his books were growing in popularity and getting media attention, so the bigger fish were starting to nose around.

In particular, Hollywood studios started reaching out, looking to option his books. Bendis had some loose contacts to actual Hollywood types, and was introduced to a newish producer here called David Spree, who became something of an advisor and also became "attached" to a couple of Bendis projects. Bendis also got a Hollywood agent, and started talking and taking meetings.

Fortune is the story of, basically, how those first three comics projects of his got him in the door to a whole bunch of places, got him a whole lot of meetings, and apparently led to a fair bit of money for options and writing the script for Goldfish...but did not, in the end, lead to any movies being made.

For Hollywood, though, that's a massive success: Bendis got a new line of income, got taken seriously, and even pitched pretty strongly (with fellow comics writer Marc Andreyko, the idea that became the comic Torso) and successfully. The Torso movie, in particular, seems to have almost happened, though Bendis is vague about how it fell apart - my guess is that it was a "personality conflict," probably not anywhere near him, and that the real story will only be told in memoirs thirty or so years down the line.

So this is a talking-heads book, heavy on the dialogue. I'm not sure if Bendis has been doing the Mamet-esque rat-tat-tat dialogue in his superhero books, but this is a real-world version of that, full of smiling tanned people lying to each other and Bendis's cartoony avatar - that's him on the cover - gamely making his way through the middle of a whole lot of bafflegab and bullshit and blatant lies.

Bendis was always a better writer than artist; I think he says that, in almost exactly those words, somewhere in this book. So it's not surprising in retrospect that he turned in the drawing board to focus on the word processor. This is, I think, one of the last big projects he drew, and it's fun and cartoony and full of energy - I don't think a story this personal and "here's what happened to me" would work as well drawn by someone else - so it was a suitable way to wind down that part of his career.

And the Hollywood stuff is entertaining, in the vein of a million other Hollywood stories from the past century or so: the names change, but the story is always the same.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Die Laughing by Andre Franquin

I've said this before, but I tend to read the outliers rather than the main works. I've mentioned it most often related to my penchant to read the collected nonfiction of novelists, often before I read any of their novels, but it applies in comics as well.

For example, let's take Andre Franquin. A towering figure of Eurocomics, the stalwart of Spirou for several decades, doing both the title character's stories and a series called Gaston Le Gaffe. I've seen his drawing; I'm sure I've heard of him multiple times. OK, so he's not been published terribly well or terribly often in the US - for whatever reason, Spirou hasn't travelled as well as Tintin or the Smurfs or Asterix. But, still, I have to believe that some of his most famous, representative work has been around in formats I could read over the past half-century I've been reading books.

Nope. What I saw first by Franquin was this 2018 book, which I read twenty-seven years after he died: Die Laughing. A collection of pitch-black (both in art style and material) mostly-unrelated comics from the '70s, mostly about death in all of its most horrible and appalling forms.

Sixty-six numbered cartoons - each of them originally appearing monthly, presumably as a palate-cleanser among happier, more colorful stories - all as black as pitch. Franquin draws his characters most of the time as black silhouettes against a white background; the effect is a bit like a old-fashioned puppet theatre with paper cut-outs, if you assume the theatre is of the Grand Guignol school.

These were timely cartoons in the 1970s, so the concerns - hunting and animal cruelty in general, the end of capital punishment, nuclear war, militarism in the big, and, for some reason, a lot of gags about hand grenades - are mostly of their time. They are all overstated for comedic effect; they are all exceptionally dark in tone. Main characters do survive to the end of their pages - actually fairly regularly - but it's not guaranteed, and, when they do, they often wish they hadn't.

Given how inky this book is, it's probably better in physical form than digitally, which is how I read it. On the other hand, I could pinch to blow up panels to try to figure out what the all-black figures were doing, which doesn't work with a real book. Comme ci, comme ça.

This is not a book one enjoys. The art is energetic and detailed - Franquin, I understand, was a great cartoonist, and his figures are cartoony and (ironically) full of life. But the matter is so grisly so much of the time, and all pitched as the '70s versions of these concerns, so the tone is often strident and it can seem beside the point forty years later. But it is powerful work by a major world cartoonist, in a very distinctive style.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

This is not a review; no ordinary civilian can "review" a hundred-and-forty-year-old pillar of his country's literature. Perhaps some exalted literary types, the sorts who sit on chairs bearing other people's names and sonorously declaim to students (rarely) and the wider public (regularly) their Revealed Truths, could do so, but I think they more often celebrate or reconsider books of that caliber. So maybe that's what I'll be doing here today.

I went through a Mark Twain phase as a young man, reading great swaths of his work in my early twenties - all of the travel books, the big two-volume Collected Tales from Library of America [1] - though, looking back, I don't think I've spent as much time with his novels. (I read Tom and Huck in school, and the later sequels - which are about as good as late sequels written to make a buck ever are - out of morbid curiosity.)

But I just reorganized my to-be-read shelves, just before a week-long vacation over the Fourth of July. The point of the reorg was to get most everything into one sequence, taking what were hidden clusters of Library of America and Everyman's Library books and integrating them into the main alphabetical sweep. The point was, I hoped, to actually read some of those gigantic books that have been sitting quietly so long, and I guess it's working. (I also want to somewhat replenish the shelves with newer books, since I still have clear evidence that I worked in SF publishing up to 2007, got review copies regularly up to about 2013, and am still living in those ruins - but that's a different, more complicated problem.)

And so I realized I have six big fat books of Twain, on the next shelf I was picking from. Shockingly, I don't have the Library of America Innocents Abroad/Roughing It, which would normally have been my first choice, so instead I jumped into Life on the Mississippi for the first time in about thirty years.

Life is a curious book, not entirely one thing or another, published in 1883 and looking backwards to a golden age a generation earlier. Twain was a steamboat pilot, having trained just before the Civil War, and the first half of Life is a somewhat potted history of the Mississippi River and then a memoir of his time as a cub pilot - how he learned the river, what the work was like, his mentors and compatriots, and similar subjects. Twain goes out of his way to make himself seem younger and more callow than he actually was: he was about 21 when he got the piloting job, and had been working as a journalist for nearly a decade. (Careers started early in the 19th century.) My sense is that this was a deliberate career move for him; piloting was a high-paid, high-status, respectable trade, and he was looking to set himself up for life - though the War, of course, broke that for Twain as for everyone else.

Here's an example of that possibly faux-naif tone, from p.263 of the edition I read:

Here was something fresh - this thing of getting up in the middle of the night to go to work. It was a detail in piloting that had never occurred to me at all. I knew that boats ran all night, but somehow I had never happened to reflect that somebody had to get up out of a warm bed to run them, I began to fear that piloting was not quite so romantic as I had imagined it was; there was something very real and work-like about this new phase of it.

The back half of Life, once Twain runs out of memoir and the War sent him scrambling west to do something else, chronicles a long trip down and back up the Mississippi, on steamboats, what seems to be the year or so before the book was published - so twenty-two years or thereabouts since the last time he'd been in that region. So he set off for St. Louis - with "a poet for company, and a stenographer to 'take him down'" - and from there went south to New Orleans and then north all the way to St. Paul.

Both halves of the book are filled with random stories - many of them frontier-style tall tales, not designed to be entirely believed - that Twain remembers from his early days or is told by new acquaintances or just digs out of other books and research. So this is a rambling, discursive journey - not unlike the big, wide, meandering Mississippi itself, Twain would probably say.

The joys are in the discursions, the random asides, the bits of humor. Twain was always a lively writer - lively by the standards of his more sedate time, and still reasonably lively in our day. Here's one of my favorite asides, from p.382:

The Mississippi is a just and equitable river; it never tumbled one man's farm overboard without building a new farm just like it for that man's neighbor. This keeps down hard feelings.

Most of all, Life is interesting as a view of a time now very distant in history - Twain is a modern enough voice that the reader will mostly be in sympathy with his viewpoint, so it can be read with pleasure instead of fighting through differences of opinion. There will be some differences of opinion, I'm sure, and some readers will have many - but, for book a century and a half old, the style and tone are reasonable. And, most importantly, Twain is always funny and insightful - wry, thoughtful, interesting, with a turn of phrase or viewpoint that's more complex than you expect.

I still think what I really want to re-read is Roughing It, which was written much closer to the events it depicts. Maybe that will be soon. The thing about great writers is that they're always there on the shelf when you need or want them.

[1] I particularly remember reading one of them while helping my brother move into a NYU dorm, one of his years there. There was no room for me in the car, with our mother driving and him in the passenger seat and massed boxes behind, so I took a bus in, got there first, and sat in Washington Square reading Twain and waiting for them.

Monday, August 21, 2023

This Year: 2003

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

Another quiet, sad song - another one about something broken or not working right.

You're makin' a mess
Is that what you do best?
Is madness just a hand-me-down?

My song for 2003 is B.P.D. by Over the Rhine. The title probably refers to Borderline Personality Disorder - probably. It's plausible, at least.

The song itself isn't that specific, though. Broken-ness can always be more general and less specific, and it is here.

I'd make it alright
But I wouldn't get it right
I'm leavin' it alone

It's about someone else, someone specific. That person is having problems - maybe asking for help, maybe just obviously in need of it.

This is clearly not new. The singer cares, but she's hit the point of clarity, of realizing that she can't fix this person, and that trying to fix other people is futile and counter-productive. All you can do is be there. All you can do is watch.

The chorus is largely the word "Yeah" stretched out - that sound of acceptance, finally, that "OK, sure, right" feeling that you've done what you can do, and this is it.

And the sound is mostly quiet: a single strong voice over piano most of the time, repetitive, the same few plaintive chords again and again - like this person asking for help, or needing help, again and again and again.

Cryin' out loud
Cryin' out
You're cryin' out

It's a song of acceptance, another song about that moment - about being there, and knowing there's nothing you can do but just be there. But, you hope, that can be enough.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Quote of the Week: The Usual Crowd

The talk is sparsely attended. Chairs are arranged in rows at the back of the shop, and on them perch, in ones and twos, such people as could be expected to attend such an event, which is to say the misfits, the in-betweeners, those for whom life, on its own, is not fulfilling enough, who seek completion of a sort in fantasy: in books.

 - Lavie Tidhar, Unholy Land, p.111

Friday, August 18, 2023

The House by Paco Roca

Some books have things that are easy to write about; some don't. The more naturalistic a book is, the harder I find it to dig into - the more it's just people living their lives, and the point of the book is seeing them, feeling some comparison to your own life, and making larger connections in your head.

A review can't do any of that work for the reader. At best, it can point in interesting directions. At worst, it can short-circuit that process, making the book look facile and cheap and dull. Let's see if I can find some interesting things to point towards, and avoid making vague windy claims.

The House is a low-key graphic novel, by Spanish illustrator and cartoonist Paco Roca, about three grown siblings - two brothers and their sister - over the course of a few weekends, maybe two or three months - which they spend, separately or together, in the vacation home their father built in their youth but which they haven't visited much at all for several years.

That father died about a year ago; they're cleaning the old place up to sell it.

That's the story. That's what happens. First Jose, the younger brother, with his relatively new partner Silvia comes to do some desultory clean-out - we see for ourselves that he's the unhandy brother before the other characters tell us. Then the older brother Vicente, then sister Carla visit the house, to do repairs and clean things out. First separately, then together. They each have their own small cluster of family - spouses, children - and they bicker, in that comfortable quiet way families do, with each other over what to do with the old place and how to handle it and how good any of them are at specific things. They talk with their neighbor, an old friend of their father's.

Behind all of this is, of course, their father's death, and how they lived through it - what they did and didn't do and how they reacted and who did what and who ran away and avoided what. There are no big revelations, but there are things they haven't talked about before, things that they haven't said to each other. There are things the reader will understand that the siblings probably don't; we get a wider, more expansive view of the story than any of them.

Roca intertwines that with flashbacks, mixing moments across decades, using a muted palette of colors to indicate scene shifts and changes of emphasis. His short, fat pages - this book is smaller than an album, and in landscape format - often do more than one thing at a time, with scenes that sit side-by-side to comment on each other or that bounce back and forth from the past to the present.

It's quietly magnificent, a universal story told precisely and well, using all of the language of comics to show this family in all their depth and complexity. Pages echo each other, colors indicate where and when we are, body language tells us what people are thinking and feeling, dialogue is natural and telling in both what it says and what it doesn't. And, most importantly, it all comes together in the reader's head: it's the kind of story that shows rather than tells, that leads the reader on a journey without just throwing up obvious signposts for plot beats. Anyone who's been in a relatively functional family will recognize a lot of this, and sympathize with at least some of the characters - if you have a sibling too much like Jose or Vicente, maybe not all of them!

One last note: I see I've neglected to mention the translator, Andrea Rosenberg, who is only credited in the backmatter. Obviously, the main body of the work is Roca's, but all of the words in this English-language edition are via Rosenberg, and their strength speaks to that work.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Assassinistas by Tini Howard and Gilbert Hernandez

The title doesn't have an exclamation point. I know: it surprises me, too. Maybe it wouldn't go full-bore Spanish-style, with an upside-down bang to begin the title - though I could see that as well - but surely it needs at least one, doesn't it?

No, I guess it doesn't, since it doesn't get one.

Assassinistas is a 2018 joint by writer Tini Howard - best known for going exclusive with Marvel on X-books and other stuff since then - and Gilbert Hernandez - best known for doing vastly more work than anyone expects and turning up doing really odd things like drawing someone else's script for a pulpy adventure about a team of female assassins.

This is, not to be too reductive about it, a Quentin Tarantino film put to paper - well, maybe not exactly Tarantino, since Howard and Hernandez don't replicate his love for feet or other specific quirks - but definitely a modern, self-aware, Tarantino-esque cinematic adventure story.

I have no idea if this was originally pitched as something that would or could be made into a movie. That seems plausible to me, and comics have tended in that way really strongly for most of the 21st century, so call it a maybe. I'm sure no one would mind if Hollywood backed their money truck up to Assassinistas HQ and started shoveling out the simoleons.

Anyway, this is a high-concept, low-plausibility thing: it's supposed to be fun and zippy and entertaining, the kind of movie that's always accompanied by a suggestion to "turn your brain off." It takes place in two deliberately vague time periods, "Then" (if I had a gun to my head, I'd say the late '70s, but I said "deliberately vague" and I meant it) and "Now-ish" (roughly twenty years after Then, and also basically the time the story came out, which is not chronologically consistent, but everyone knows that).

There was a team of assassins then - Charlotte "Scarlet" La Costa, the blonde; Octavia "Red October" Price, the Black one; and Rosalyn "Blood" Diamond, the one who always wore a mask (and, also, was Asian, because a team of three people in a big dumb Hollywood story is required to break down into specific demographics). It's not clear how they became highly-paid international assassins; it seems to be just the kind of thing that happens, just another high-paying job with stress and specific equipment and all that.

They were recruited into a cult from a punk club, in what seem to be their late teens. Their guru was caught, somehow, and jailed for a long time. Somehow this led, we're expected to believe, to their assassination careers. Sure, why not? When you're a Manson Girl suddenly alone in the world, why not turn to murdering millionaires for pay?

The details of the assassinations is left vague in a way that maximizes the chances readers will be at least mildly positive: we see them killing capitalists, mostly, and if we're OK with assassins to begin with that seems reasonable.

Most of the story is set "Now-ish," though - the Then sections are flashbacks for pathos and eyeball kicks and to let the eventual movie cast two women in each role, one young and one seasoned. When we're "Now-ish," the team has long been broken up; they all went straight and Roslyn has been incommunicado for a long time.

Octavia has a son in college, Dominic. Charlotte has a toddler, Kyler, and another baby on the way. Yes, this is a "the next generation" story: Dom is pulled in when his mother has an unexpected situation that demands her old skills, and he brings along his new-ish college boyfriend Taylor. (Yes: we also get "Mom, I'm gay!" drama. It's handled well; no need to cringe.)

OK: Rosalyn has kidnapped Kyler, for no obvious reason. Octavia, who now sells kidnapping insurance, has just sold a policy to her old teammate Charlotte, who is pissed at her son being kidnanapped in general and in particular at the timing, which seems fishy. (It is not. There are twists, but only minor ones built into the premise. This is a turn-off-your-brain story.)

So Octavia, Dom, and Taylor gear up and set off to find and retrieve Kyler. We are not meant to question if this is how the insurance Octavia sells usually works; it can't be, right? We are also not meant to think "assassination and kidnapping retrieval have some things in common, sure, but they're radically disjoint skill sets". We are not meant to think; we are meant to go "Yay! Now the ultraviolence starts!"

It's bloodless ultraviolence, though, since Rosalyn has an army of robot goons - dressed identically to her, for maximum confusion. But the whole cast comes together at the end, after quite a lot of running around and flashbacks and firing guns and ambushes - including Dom's father, who was a supplementary Assassinista, more or less, back in the day.

And, of course, it is all about the new generation: if that seems to be missing in any particular family, refer to my note about about twists and their obviousness. We end Hollywood-style, with the main cast solidified in their roles and available for sequels. Hoorah!

This is professional and fun and enjoyable and not something I could take seriously for more than a page or two at a time. But it's not meant to be taken seriously, so that's just fine.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Highbone Theater by Joe Daly

This might well be Joe Daly's magnum opus - it's certainly big, expansive, and full of the ideas and tropes from his earlier work. I hope not, because I like to see creators always striving, always pushing forward - and this book is nearly a decade old, with apparently nothing new from Daly since then.

Whatever it is is, it's big: 2016's Highbone Theater is nearly six hundred pages long, though Daly's style is fairly stripped down and quick here, with mostly just three to five big squared-off panels to a page. So it reads more quickly than that page count implies.

Like a lot of Daly's earlier work (the short stories in Scrublands, the longer, semi-detective stories in The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book), it's about young slackers in South Africa: men with jobs that aren't careers and friends they don't like that much and substances (beer and weed and odder things) they like to use maybe more than they should. Highbone is more realistic at core than Daly's earlier work, though: it's not set in a fantasy world like the Dungeon Quest series, there's no detective-style hijinks, and the intrusions of visionary colors and characters can mostly be explained by those substances I mentioned.

Mostly. The ending can't, but this is a big book - it's a long way to the ending.

The other big difference is that Highbone focuses on one main character, not a group or duo. Eric Palmer is central here, another one of Daly's over-muscled figures with a small head; his bald head and long white beard make him look several decades older than he's supposed to be.

Palmer - even his parents call him Palmer, which is an odd touch - is a seeker, a would-be profound guy, someone looking for meaning and deep connection in a shallow and surface-y world. His closest friends are the two bros Perry and Brewster, the very shallowest of men, who Palmer has really nothing in common with. We don't know why he's friends with them, how it came about, but we assume they're old friends, from school or the neighborhood or whatever. Palmer also spends a lot of time with Billy Boy, his co-worker at the paper factory, who is a massive conspiracy theorist of the oddest and weirdest type.

Highbone, I guess, is about those two poles of Palmer's life: the beer-swilling womanizing thoughtless good-time-seeking of Perry and Brewster versus the hermetic twisted drug-fueled search for a central meaning of everything of Billy. Both sides are caricatures; both seem silly and unreasonable from the outside. It's not clear if they seem that way to Palmer; he's a bit of an innocent, for all his mysticism and drug experimentation.

Daly doesn't put us directly into Palmer's head, but he is a guy who thinks out loud - to himself, while experiencing altered states, and to others, often at too great length and on subjects those others are not particularly interested in.

As usual with Daly, Highbone isn't all that plotty: things happen, times go on, and Palmer experiences events, but it's all a vague now, and those moments don't directly add up to anything. He goes shark fishing with Perry and Brewster at the beginning; he moves into an apartment; he works and chats with those guys and has a few faltering dates with a woman named Raquel.

He also takes drugs and has visionary experiences - some immediately after taking drugs, some that seem to be dreams, since we see him waking up afterward. Daly doesn't make the connections obvious, but his visions are clearly influenced by his life - and they will become more than visions by the ending.

The ending would be out of left field from anyone but Daly, with the "real world" validating both the conspiracy theories and the visions, leaving Palmer in a very different place and what seems to be several years later.

I found the conspiracy theories distracting - maybe they're supposed to be valid within the world of this book, but they're not just wrong, but crazy wrong, the kind of things only people with serious mental issues would believe. Little men who secretly run things from inside the earth is one thing; I can take that in fiction. Bizarre 9/11-was-faked ideas, though, aren't something I can stomach at all; I was in Manhattan that day.

I'm hoping for more books from Daly, especially given his long quiet period since this book, but Highbone made me think he's strongest when he's using genre-fiction ideas - fantasy, detectives, whatever - to manage and organize his visionary flights, instead of trying to start from the ostensibly "real" world. Highbone does a lot of things well and has a power in its heft and sweep, but parts of it are badly conceived or just don't quite cohere in the end.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

About Betty's Boob by Vero Cazot and Julie Rocheleau

I'm still digging up all of the European comics I can find digitally, though it's harder as Europe Comics sinks into decline and quietly disappears. But other publishers do French and Belgian comics, so I'm still finding some things.

About Betty's Boob, for example - Archaia published this in 2018, in an Edward Gauvin translation, a year after the original Casterman edition. It won a few awards in French, and was nominated for an Eisner in this edition. It's by two female creators I'm not previously familiar with - writer Vero Cazot is French and artist Julie Rocheleau is Quebecois. (And, having just hit Rocheleau's site, let me gush for just a minute: she does lovely, luminous work, with striking, brilliant colors and energetic, inspiring figures. I'm just sad it looks like none of her other BDs have been translated into English; I'd love to dive into more of her stories right away.)

Now, the first thing you notice about Boob is probably Rocheleau's art, since this book is mostly wordless. There are some lyrics later on, some names exchanged, but it's mostly pantomime and dingbats dialogue and a few pieces of paper with writing on them.

Our heroine and central figure is Elisabeth B. The book opens with a dream or vision of crabs: she has just had surgery following breast cancer. Her left breast has been removed; her hair has fallen out. She wakes in a hospital bed, clearly somewhat disoriented.

Boob is not a book of small emotions, understated actions, and quiet moments - it's big and colorful and more than a little zany, like some kind of silent movie that miraculously is in full color. It's told in a series of chapters - first the hospital, then going back home with her partner, then work, and so on.

It's all big and sweetly dramatic and saturated with Rocheleau's warm-to-hot colors. Elisabeth is trying to get back into the swing of her life, after this big change...but it's not clicking, no matter what she does.

The tag line on the book is "She lost her left breast, her job, and her guy. She does not know it yet, but this is the best day of her life." That's the plot of the first half: that nice-looking guy can't cope with Elisabeth's change, and her work (at what seems to be a Victoria's Secret-esque retail establishment, all young ladies in tight T-shirts emphasizing their frontal development) soon kicks her out, specifically for no longer having two boobs. She goes to a shop for a prosthesis, which is amusing and dramatic, like everything else in Boob, but isn't right for her.

She's in a funk; things are not going well. And then she loses her wig, blown away on the wind. She chases across rooftops and down streets, with a manic air - maybe it's the last piece of who she used to be. And, at about the halfway point in this book, it leads her to a boat tied up on the river or coast - I think this is Paris, from the rooftops and assuming that's a river, but it could be many places, or any place.

At that boat, she meets a troupe of burlesque performers, mostly women. Of all shapes and sizes and types, none of them "perfect." There's a strong man, Nino, who seems like he may be interested in her - he's at least solicitous and helpful with all the little cuts and bruises she got chasing that wig. She gets a new wig, short and kicky, and a borrowed dress.

She watches the troupe's show that night, from the wings, enthralled and excited. And, because it's that kind of book, about dramatic moments and foibles and accidents and mistakes, she falls onto the stage, in her new "costume." She becomes part of the show, as "Betty Boob."

And things turn around, as they must. This is a happy story, one about things working out well and lives that get better than ever. Betty Boob is a sensation; all the people who scorned Elisabeth - that partner, the dragon-lady boss - have to see her and be dazzled by her brilliance and find new peace themselves.

If it weren't wordless, it might be too much: too rich, too emotional, too much wish-fulfillment. But it is wordless, mostly, so it reads like a dream or a fantasy or the kind of movie early enough in the history of the world that all endings must be happy. Betty deserves all of this, and it is glorious to watch her triumphant and happy.

I think this story will be even stronger for women than for men, particularly women told over and over again that the details of their bodies are important, that they have worth because of specific things about their bodies. But, even for a man, even at the distance I come from, it's sweet and lovely and uplifting, like the song that brings a gigantic grin from some energetic 1920s cartoon.

Monday, August 14, 2023

This Year: 2002

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

I want to say this was the song of my layoff in 2007, but it wasn't, quite. [1] I got this record in December of that year, a couple of months after I started a new job. But I listened to it a lot in the car, driving to and from my new train station, trying to make sense of my new working life.

And that's a good thing: I don't know if I could have supported the weight of this when I was still unemployed. 

Everyone has, I think, a few songs that are central to their conceptions of themselves. Maybe happy songs from important moments, maybe "our song," maybe something bright and happy and cheery from their teenage years. I've always been darker and more cynical that that; I mentioned Matthew Sweet's Knowing People here a few weeks back. This is another one; this one is even more stark.

And everybody thinks that we're in this together
And everybody wishes "always be together"
But we're all in this alone
Oh we're all in this alone
Oh we're all in this alone
And the world is all alone

I roared along with this song, especially that refrain, in my car over and over again. It was a mantra, or a talisman. This is We're All in This Alone by Mendoza Line, the band whose name was mockingly self-loathing. [2]

This is another song that starts up distinctively, with a clicking sound that I've always associated with an old-style movie projector. It's the sound of a story starting, the sound of a beginning, the sound of "let me tell you something true."

And it is just brutal in that truth.

Lately you don't mean that much to me

That is the first line of the song.

Mendoza Line had a lot of back-and-forth, war-of-the-sexes songs on their last few albums - the main singers Timothy Bracy and Shannon McArdle were first marrying and then divorcing during that time, though their interviews at the time claim (in best Richard and Linda Thompson fashion) that the songs didn't actually reflect their relationship; that this was all fictional.

A whole bunch of those songs are great - The Lethal Temptress, It'll Be the Same Without You, It Helps to Leave the House, Morbid Craving - and the bracing, spite-filled, amazing 31 Candles the most of them. (And also listen to McArdle's first solo record, from immediately afterward, Summer of the Whore.)

But Alone is the dark core of that cynicism, the darkest and deepest they ever got, as close to pure nihilism a four-minute pop song ever got.

Occasionally I question my integrity
'Cause I turn a phrase so easily
Into what you want to hear

There's a lot of loathing in Mendoza Line, especially towards the end, both self- and aimed outward. You might have to be a particular kind of person to identify so much with that, but I am, and always have been, that kind of person.

This is still one of my favorite songs. This is still one of the songs that I think of as defining me: that it says something not just true - lots of songs say true things - but something central and important.

We're all in this alone.
And the world is all alone.

[1] That was New Routine, from Fountains of Wayne. I still can't hear that song without thinking about that summer.

[2] Literally. "The Mendoza Line" is baseball-writer terminology for "the worst and/or least qualified Major League player."

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Quote of the Week: The Way of the World

"Lords, ladies, priests, and scholars are the biggest liars. Men daren't tell lords the truth now. Where there's a failing, I must flatter and lie, or else have the door shut on me. I've often heard men say the truth, who with a lie make their argument conform better to their intention. They have to mix the lie in to add a flourish to their case. Often the lie comes spontaneously, and falls in with the matter without premeditation. So when the lie is well dressed, it falls into step with the truth.

"Dear nephew, men must now lie here, and tell the truth there. They have to flatter, threaten, beg, and curse. They must attack their opponent's weakest point. Whoever intends to prosper in the world without composing a beautiful lie, without wrapping it and hiding it so that men take it for truth, won't escape servitude. If a man is so subtle as not to stammer when he's being heard, nephew, he can work wonders .He'll wear scarlet and fur, he'll win in both canon and civil law and wherever he has business to do."

 - the title character in Reynard the Fox, p.145, translated by James Simpson from William Caxton's 1485 original

Friday, August 11, 2023

Unholy Land by Lavie Tdihar

This is a story of layers, of successive revelations. I'm going to try to avoid spoiling those, but it's a danger. So if you hate all spoiling, you may want to go into this book cold.

Unholy Land was Lavie Tidhar's new novel for 2018, after Central Station and before By Force Alone. It looks like an alternate history at first glance, and is that. It's more than that, but, again, I don't want to spoil things, so I'll hint and nod rather than explain.

Lior Tirosh is a detective novelist, probably in his thirties. He's not unsuccessful - he has a career, a reasonably high-powered London literary agent, and fans across the globe - but his books are somewhat formulaic, not nearly as literary as he'd like to think they are, and not nearly as popular as he'd hope. He has a broken marriage behind him and one young son, Isaac, whose fate not quite clear as the novel begins.

Tirosh is flying from Berlin, where he lives, back to his homeland, to see his aged father. That homeland is the first SFnal element of the book: Tirosh was born in Palestina, a land the British Empire carved out of East Africa in the early 20th century as a new homeland for Jews. It's now some years later - maybe the modern day, maybe the end of the 20th century? - and Palestina is now trying to build a wall around itself, to close off the Disputed Territories, keep out terrorists, and assert its control. Otherwise, this world is similar to our own, though maybe with less genocide - WWII seems to have been smaller, mostly an imperial struggle between Germany and England that ended with Hitler's assassination. The big empires have been broken up, we think - but, it seems, later and/or slower than it happened in our world.

Tirosh is one of three main characters in the book, one of three viewpoints. Telling you much of anything about the other two would give everything away. Tirosh is seen in third person; the others each take first and second. And they are deeply tied to further SFnal ideas that bubble up in Unholy Land, as Tirosh lands in Ararat City and re-engages with the land of his birth and with the idea of a Jewish homeland. With all of the ideas of Jewish homelands, Palestina and Israel and others - all of the ways his people thought of finding a place for themselves, with and without shoving everyone else out.

Tirosh is obviously something of a stand-in for his author: their names are similar, their careers are similar. (I can't speak to their personal situations, though, from The Escapement, I think Tidhar also has a son, and that son may have had some serious illness.)

Unholy Land gets more SFnal from that initial alt-history premise; the other viewpoints are deeply intertwined with a deeper plot with larger implications. Tirosh himself is something in the territory between bystander, vital witness, and catalyst - this all could possibly happen without him, but his being there makes it easier, maybe even inevitable.

It all moves quicker and quicker, as the problems increase and the dangers heighten: there's plenty of violence and action and mystery, as Tirosh navigates a world less familiar than he expected and finds himself acting like one of his own characters.

Unholy Land raises big questions and grapples strongly with them, in the ways strong SFF can - making philosophical ideas real and graspable, things that people can fight over and shove societies into. I've been impressed by all of Tidhar's books I've read, and this was another thought-provoking, powerful, strongly written one.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Pop Gun War, Vol. 2: Chain Letter by Farel Dalrymple

What's important here, I think, is that it's a delayed sequel. One that came a decade later, after other stories. Everything else flows out from there: this is not the next thing, but a later thing.

Pop Gun War, Vol. 2: Chain Letter was collected in 2017, from material that mostly appeared in ISLAND magazine the previous three years. I was confused by the notation in the app where I read it (Hoopla) that it collected issues 4, 5, 10, 14, and 15, as if those were the issues of Pop Gun War - those are the places this appeared in ISLAND.

It's more Farel Dalrymple, vague drifting stories that take SFF adventure story tropes - often deliberately as if conceptualized by children - and mix them with a vaguely existential strew of ennui, angst, and confusion. There are plots, sort of, of a kind, but they start aimlessly, run for a while, and then get abandoned. There are characters, and we hear their interior concerns and worries, but they're not all that rounded: each one is a fragment or facet or avatar. There are places, striking and strange and weird, but we don't learn how they connect to each other, or any serious background details - they are creepy or shiny or bland places where things happen, nothing more.

I could link back to my post on the first Pop Gun War collection, but this is only loosely related. This is, maybe, what happened to Sinclair's sister Emily at some point during the events of the first book. Or maybe not: Dalrymple is rarely all that definitive.

Anyway, Emily - who here seems to be smaller and younger than I thought she was in the first book, a prepubescent girl barely older than Sinclair and not the teenager I thought she was - is on tour with her band, which is otherwise all young men, of the typical kind that form bands. Their van has broken down in some random town. She goes out for a walk, sees mysterious figures sneaking into a sewer, follows them.

There's a confrontation, eventually, with those creepy men and their boss, but more important is that Emily finds a room, in those comic-booky high-tech underground corridors, where screens show her visions of the past, present, and future. Most of this book are those visions: other characters doing other things other places, which Emily witnesses and is the frame story for.

She sees Sinclair and Addison, from the first book, briefly, but they don't do much. She sees private detective Ben Able, who tries to free a group of kids - maybe kidnapped, maybe just playing, maybe something else? - from a creepy haunted house. She sees a cyborg astronaut battling, gladiator-pit-style, in what seems to be Proxima Centauri (maybe connected to that Dalrymple book), managed by a girl of her age, Gwen Noiritch, who has a cyborg/magic eye. Oh, and there's a fat kid in a super-suit, Hollis, who bounces into their plot and get the three of them chased around for a while.

None of those framed stories really end, but none of them started cleanly, either - Emily tunes into them at a particular moment, watches for a while, and then something else gets her attention.

Dalrymple's material often seems like the ideas of a hyperactive kid, someone who's read masses of SFF and is mix-and-matching all the stuff he loves best with silly names and crazy ideas and not all that much worry about consistency and plot. But the style is more contemplative and adult, looking back at those silly names and superpowers with a wry, forgiving but distanced eye, as if wondering if he ever were that young. I think it's meant to drive specific emotions, to evoke complex feelings of nostalgia and regret and discomfort. I still couldn't tell you the why of any of that. But it's what I think he's trying to do, and he's pretty successful at that quirky, counterintuitive thing.

Wednesday, August 09, 2023

Finder: Mystery Date by Carla Speed McNeil

Vary Krishna is a young woman from the sticks - some little town that's barely a bump in the road - whose dream is to be a high-status, high-priced courtesan in the big city. Well, "courtesan" is my word, and not exactly accurate, but it gives you the general idea: sex and companionship is central, but poise and flash and experience and knowledge and intelligence are not far behind. [1]

But, on the medium-future Earth of Carla McNeil's Finder, I tend to think everyone is going to get fucked, one way or another. It's a cruel world in dozens of ways, full of people stuffed into straitjacket lives with few choices, either "tribals" living in rural poverty and dying young or "clans" rigidly required to be nearly-identical in thoughts, actions, careers, and aspirations and stuffed into Trantorian domed cities.

So the fact that Vary is making a deliberate choice about how, where, and by whom she's going to be fucked is pretty damn positive for this world, and I'll take it in that spirit. Finder: Mystery Date is her story.

She's an up-and-comer in the world of classy prostitution, featured on the flyers of the Lian-Jin Institute of the Art, a top-notch institution of the city of Anvard, where she lives and works and studies...well, the kind of things you'd expect a high-value companion to study.

But, since those high-powered prostitutes generally do something else most of the time, and are sexually tied to one rich patron - again, I don't think the economy of McNeil's world makes sense; it's a big, technological, modern world that's stuck in medieval structures for handwavy reasons - Vary is also studying more traditional academic topics at Temple University. (No, not the one in Philadelphia. That would be a fun book, but it's not this one.)

The plot of Mystery Date is mostly about Vary's crush on her professor. One might expect that a young, highly attractive woman who is more than halfway along to being one of the most sexually skilled and accomplished people in her world would not have much trouble seducing a middle-aged academic, but there'd be no story if that was the case, would it?

And, anyway, it's more complex than that. Vary is crushing on both of her major anthropology professors - the cold and distant Zivancevic, who at least is human but wears a white blindfold at all times and has inhuman robotic legs, and the more vivacious and friendly Shar, who is one of the nonhuman intelligent Laeske (something like feathered dragons the size of horses). [2] Zivancevic could presumably have sex with her the usual way, but she can't get emotionally close enough to him for that to happen. She can be part of some sex-related activities with Shar, but the annual mating rituals of a alien species are not what a young hottie like Vary is looking for.

(She implies she's had crushes on professors/mentors before; my assumption is that she's generally been able to seduce them and then move on. The fact that Zivancevic is so resistant is the whole point here; Vary is someone who's always previously been able to seduce everyone she wanted to pretty much exactly when she wanted to.)

McNeil tells this story is a cluster of short vignettes that grow into longer sections as the story goes on: we start with moments and individual emotions and move on to an expedition in the second half, where these three all go to the big annual mating ritual of the Laeske. (Typically for McNeil, this happens way out in the wilderness and is very "natural" - her stories take place largely in big bustling tech-y cities, but there's an underlying tone that living like that is wrong for humans and other thinking beings.)

Does Vary get to fuck Zivancevic? Does she get good grades? Reader, those are the wrong questions - and I won't answer them anyway. Mystery Date is about the journey and what Vary learns along the way. It may also be about the myriad notes about the world and story that McNeil includes in her backmatter here; I read this in The Finder Library, Vol 2, which has dozens of pages of notes on the included stories, almost for every single page.

And, as before, McNeil combines a distinctive viewpoint - you can see my grappling with how to describe it here; she writes SF like no one else I know - and supple, engaging, detailed art. I might not want to ever live in the world of Finder, but it's one of the best SFnal worlds in all comics, and I love to keep visiting it and seeing the people McNeil has embodied there.

[1] There seems to be traditional, house-based prostitution here - and, as usual with Finder's world, there's only rarely a sense that any activity is illegal; things are culturally approved or not, and that's a complex knot depending on what culture you're part of.

But the equivalent of grandes horizontales are basically the celebrities of this world, though they seem to be famous as much for the other things they do - they're artists, writers, scientists, whatever; top of their fields at something interesting, skilled, and/or creative - and they each have a single patron who bankrolls them and, for that, gets their exclusive sexual services.

Finder is, I'm coming to think, at base about the many horrible failures of capitalism, but this seems bizarre in what is presented as a market society. Why are the people most able to attract a wide paying audience - in a world that we've already seen has mass-media and mass audiences - stuck aspiring to be the playthings of rich randos?

I think McNeil really loves constructing rigid categories for people - that's how she builds worlds - and then examining the interstices and ways her characters can live within those rigidities. But those rigidities in the background make her world seem really unpleasant and forbidding, to me at least, in every last detail she presents. Her notes in particular read to me like a long list of "and here's another really horrible thing these people need to live with! Isn't that anthropologically interesting?"

[2] I don't think I've mentioned this previously when talking about Finder - see my posts on the first omnibus, Talisman, and Dream Sequence - but there are multiple nonhuman sapient races in this world.  Quite obviously nonhuman: they have physically varied bodies and aren't Star Trek-like humanoids with facial prosthetics. (And I would not be surprised to find that humans have sex with them - it doesn't happen here, exactly, but it's plausible in this world - but there's no way even species that can manage to have mutually fulfilling activities, which might require some serious conversations and willingness to adapt, would be anything like interfertile.)

McNeil doesn't give a hint of the origin of any of these races, so they could be genetically engineered at some point in the previous few thousand years, come from planets elsewhere in the galaxy, or even something more exotic. Her obsessions as a teller of stories are mostly around cultures, particularly orally transmitted cultures and their expectations/obligations, so I don't think she cares where any of these races came from, only how they fit into this landscape now.

Tuesday, August 08, 2023

Reynard the Fox translated by James Simpson

Every culture has trickster tales. And they come back out of the literary closet, every so often, to remind us how similar their joys and outlines are, how similar human beings actually are when you come down to it.

In medieval Europe, the trickster figure was Reynard the Fox, the center of a cluster of beast stories set in a kingdom ruled by a lion, with other animals (wolf, bear, rabbit, badger, etc.) as other major figures. Like all tricksters, he always won, and he won by trickery and fast talking.

The standard version of this material in English comes from William Caxton, who translated and published Reynard the Fox, from the Dutch, in 1481. (I think the text he used was also the most popular/common one on the Continent as well - and these stories were big and central enough that the standard word for "fox" in French changed from goupil to reynard during the two or three centuries before Caxton's book.)

About a decade ago, James Simpson published a new translation of Reynard the Fox - from his notes, I think he worked from Caxton's text to modernize and update it, rather than going back to the medieval Dutch originals - and that's the edition available now.

Simpson's extensive, interesting introduction makes it clear that Reynard is not a hero; he does almost entirely bad things, succeeding by treachery and fast-talking, and the reader is on his side because, presumably, we like seeing the powerful humbled and maybe we think he's not as bad as his main antagonists, Isengrim the Wolf and Bruin the Bear.

But we don't really see Isengrim and Bruin - or King Noble the Lion - do anything bad, though they are blustery and not as smart or clear-thinking as they could be. This Reynard seems to be pretty late in a literary tradition, though; I gather the original audience would be familiar with dozens of earlier stories in which Isengrim and Bruin tried to cheat Reynard, and some of those stories are summarized here. There's also the very common human tropism for valuing smart over strong. Isengrim and Bruin are blunt objects, powerful and demanding and overpowering, while Reynard is a rapier, getting his opponents to do things by convincing them.

So Reynard is fun and enticing, even when he's luring others to their doom. (There are speaking roles for hares and rabbits and the large family of Chaunticleer the Cock, many of whom end up in the bellies of Reynard and his family.)

His stories are somewhat episodic, in a framework of being called to King Noble's court to make amends for his crimes - Reynard slips some invitations through trickery, goes to court and wins there through trickery, and so on. (It's trickery every time; that's the point. That's how Reynard wins.)

I didn't find this actually funny, but it was amusing, in a bloody medieval way. I'm not as convinced about the deeper satirical meanings - that Reynard represents the medieval peasant, and these stories  show that guy winning out over the stronger, more powerful forces in his society - but it's an arguable point.

What is clear is that Reynard's fast-talking is exactly the opposite of what he's actually doing: he lies comprehensively, at great length, and in ways that clearly mimic how the great and good actually talked about Big Things in this era. Reynard claims to be on the side of honesty and fair-dealing, to be ready to set off on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, how true he's always been, and how everyone else is always wrong him - nearly all of these are bald-faced lies from beginning to end, and they're all completely believed by the rest of the cast at exactly the times when believing those things will cause them trouble.

Reynard, in the end, seems to me to be the epitome of the story of talking one's way out of trouble. Reynard, as a character, is defined by that power: if you let him speak, he will bespell everyone, escape all bonds, eat whoever he wants, get honors and riches, and delight in mischief. As long as the reader thinks of himself as Reynard, and not his victims, that's enticing and thrilling.