Sunday, December 31, 2023

Quote of the Week: Women, Amirite?

There was something in Marge's eyes when she was very serious that made her look wise and old in spite of the naïve clothes she wore and her windblown hair and her general air of a Girl Scout. She had the look of a mother or an older sister now - the old feminine disapproval of the destructive play of little boys and men. La dee da! Or was it jealousy?

 - Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley, p.69 in the 1999 Everyman's Ripley omnibus

Quote of the Hour: Limelight, Hogging of, Examples

Claudia [Schiffer], though, is not what you would call a team player. While the other models only occasionally respond to the photographers' pleas for more, Claudia stands at the end of the runway for what seems like ten minutes at a time, making love to every camera in sight. The other girls, held up at the head of the runway and waiting for her to get through, give her exactly the look you see on the face of an impatient commuter at the Holland Tunnel who is stuck in the exact change lane behind a woman who has entered it on a hunch.

 - Adam Gopnik, "Couture Shock," p.143 in Paris to the Moon

Quote of the Hour: His Whole Life Ahead of Him

There are a lot of towns like Lakewood in California. They were California's mill towns, breeder towns for the boom. When times were good and there was money to spread around, these were the towns that proved Marx wrong, that managed to increase the proletariat and simultaneously, by calling it middle class, to co-opt it. Such towns were organized around the sedative idealization of team sports, which were believed to develop "good citizens," and therefore tended to the idealization of adolescent males. During the good years, the years for which places like Lakewood or Canoga Park or El Segundo or Pico Rivera existed, the preferred resident was in fact an adolescent or post-adolescent male, ideally one already married and mortgaged, in harness to the plant, a good worker, a steady consumer, a team player, someone who played ball, a good citizen.

 - Joan Didion, Where I Was From (p.1028 in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live)

Quote of the Hour: Knows What He Likes

I've seen his pictures, and they are like nothing on earth. So far as I can make out what he says, they aren't supposed to be. There's one in particular, called "The Coming of Summer," which I sometimes dream about when I've been hitting it up a shade too vigorously. It's all dots and splashes, with a great eye staring out of the middle of the mess. It looks as if summer, just as it was on the way, had stubbed its toe on a bomb. He tells me it's his masterpiece, and that he will never do anything like it again. I should like to have that in writing.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, "Concealed Art," (p.211 in Enter Jeeves)

Quote of the Hour: Great Sideswipes of Our Time

Like most science-fiction writers, Trout knew almost nothing about science, was bored stiff by technical details. 

 - Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions (p.598 in Novels & Stories, 1963-1973)

Quote of the Hour: You Know It's True

Assassins, Guild of. The second most frequent guild after the THIEVES' GUILD. Indeed, it is possible that these are the only two, and that in Fantasyland crime is the sole organized activity.

 - Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, p.10

Quote of the Hour: How to Bluff Your Way

He looked around the classroom objectively, feeling better now that he proposed to leave it, but marveling afresh that so many grown-up, self-supporting people should be eager to spend time and money studying not a subject in itself but methods to conceal their ignorance of it.

 - Dawn Powell, The Locusts Have No King, (p. 316 in Novels 1944-1962)

Quote of the Hour: True Dat

The crowd drank with an intensity that only comes with the combination of free alcohol, unsuccessful writers, and high stress.

 - Nick Mamatas, I Am Providence, p.146

Quote of the Hour: Deepest Suburbia

Merridale Lane is one of those corners of Surrey where the inhabitants wage a relentless battle against the stigma of suburbia. Trees, fertilized and cajoled into being in every front garden, half obscure the poky "Character dwellings" which crouch behind them. The rusticity of the environment is enhanced by the wooden owls that keep guard over the names of houses, and by crumbling dwarfs indefatigably poised over goldfish ponds. The inhabitants of Merridale Lane do not paint their dwarfs, suspecting this to be a suburban vice, nor, for the same reason, do they varnish the owls; but wait patiently for the years to endow these treasures with an appearance of weathered antiquity, until one day even the beams on the garage may boast of beetle and woodworm.

 - John Le Carré, Call for the Dead, p.17

Quote of the Hour: What Do You Do With a Problem Like Peasemarch?

As he dragged his stumbling feet along the corridor, he was musing on Albert Peasemarch and the grave social problem which such men as Albert Peasemarch presented. You could not murder them. You could not even have them shut up in asylums. Yet, left to run around lose, what a gangrene in the body politic they were. He seemed to picture the world as a vast cauldron of soup, with good men like himself for ever standing on the brink and for ever being shoved into it by the Albert Peasemarches.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, The Luck of the Bodkins, p.214 

Quote of the Hour: For But Not By

It was frequently said [during the 1988 presidential campaign] to be the Year of the Woman, and the convention had clearly been shaped to make the ticket attractive to women, but its notion of what might attract women was clumsy, off, devised as it was buy men who wanted simultaneously to signal the electorate that they were in firm control of any woman who might have her own agenda.

 - Joan Didion, "Political Fictions," in Political Fictions (p.811 in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live)

Portions for Foxes: Introduction

For this past year, I posed one song every Monday, each from one artist from one year - neither one repeated - covering basically my life to date. (I turned fifty-four last year, so fifty-two songs is pretty close.)

That series was called This Year, and had the Mountain Goats song of the same name as its exemplar.

I liked doing that, and so there will be a new series for 2024.

This time, I looked at the list from 2023 and asked, "what's missing here?"

And the obvious answer is: women. I went to Vassar; I know that systems that aren't designed to exclude women sometimes do just that, even if there's no malice involved. Inclusion often requires active effort. And so 2024 is my tiny little bit of active effort.

This year's every-Monday post will be a celebration of female solo artists and woman-fronted bands - again, a different artist with a different song every week for the course of the year. I'm trying to avoid "chick singers," in the words of a random Okkervil River song: I'm trying to pick band leaders, not just frontwomen. But who knows if I can always tell? (I guess I apologize in advance if I guess wrong; if I assume a woman had more influence and power than she actually did.)

There's an asterisk to this series, a group of artists who could have been included, but weren't, because they were part of This Year. It's a fairly short list - seeing how short is what made me decide to do all-women for 2024 - but here it is:

  • Belly
  • Beth Orton
  • Caitlin Cobb-Vialet
  • Charming Disaster
  • Grace Pool
  • The Indelicates
  • Kate Tucker and the Sons of Sweden
  • Living Pins
  • Liz Phair
  • Low
  • Lydia Loveless
  • Melissa Etheridge
  • The Mendoza Line
  • Mieka Pauley
  • Over the Rhine
  • Richard and Linda Thompson
  • Rilo Kiley
  • Wye Oak

Those posts will start with the first one, tomorrow. 2024 has fifty-three Mondays, and I've gotten the list down to exactly fifty-three songs, so I think I'm ready - I think I've cut it down to a manageable project.

They are organized in the most obvious, dull way possibly: alphabetically. For '24, I didn't do the one-song-per-year thing; that was fun but a bit precious, and it tends to be Procrustean. This year's list comes largely from the last two decades - more than half just from 2005-10, when I guess I was paying more attention to popular music - and I don't apologize for that. Most of these women and bands are still making music; I think that's a good thing.

And, like last year, I'll have one extra song to provide the title. I'm calling this series Portions for Foxes, after a song I love but couldn't fit into this list, partially because I'd already had a Rilo Kiley song last year. 

Why that song? Why that title? The title is vague and allusive; it's inspired a bunch of random posts online by people trying to figure out what it means, which is a fine tradition to join. Mostly, I like the song, I like the opacity of it, and I'm amused that the title is an obscure reference to Psalms 63:10  - “They shall fall by the sword: they shall be a portion for foxes.”

What does that mean? Well, in the Biblical context, it's King David threatening his enemies with death. In the song, I think it's less stark than that, and more personal. Being torn apart can happen in other ways than physically.

And why the song: it's yet another bad love song, which I'm always fond of. Big emotions make songs mean more. It's complex and circling, grappling with things that the singer can't quite articulate. And it's capacious and open enough to stand for many things, which I want as an overall label for this long, various series.

Most of all: I spent a long time circling songs with "she" and "woman" and "Monday" and "year" in the title, looking for something to strike me as the perfect series title. I didn't find it; I decided to go the other way - quirky and allusive and non-specific, a song I already love that can stand in, enigmatically, for everything else. So here it is:

Quote of the Hour: Going on a Lion Hunt

I always get scared long after I should have, but I make up for it by being very scared. Being scared doesn't help anything, though. In fact, once you're scared, you might start making bad decisions. It can twist up your head, to where maybe you do something stupid just because you're afraid your reason for not doing it is because you're afraid. Did you follow that? The other thing is that when you're scared, one of the weird things that happens if that you're suddenly filled with the desire to get it over with,. Not your best mindset when in danger, know what I mean?

 - Steven Brust, Tsalmoth, pp.141-2

Quote of the Hour: Plausible Excuses

There is always the easy way out, although I am loath to use it. I have no children, I do not watch television and I do not believe in God - all paths taken by mortals to make their lives easier. Children help us to defer the painful task of confronting ourselves, and grandchildren take over from them. Television distracts us from the onerous necessity of finding projects to construct in the vacuity of our frivolous lives: by beguiling our eyes, television releases our mind from the great work of making meaning. Finally, God appeases our animal fears and the unbearable prospect that someday all our pleasures will cease.

 - Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, pp.176-177

Quote of the Hour: That One Boss You Never Forget

The figure that comes before me oftenest, out of the shadows of that vanished time, is that of Brown, of the steamer 'Pennsylvania' - the man referred to in a former chapter, whose memory was so good and tiresome. He was a middle-aged, long, slim, bony, smooth-shaven, horse-faced, ignorant, stingy, malicious, snarling, fault-hunting, mote-magnifying tyrant. I early got the habit of coming on watch with dread in my heart. No matter how good a time I might have been having with the off-watch below, and no matter how high my spirits might be when I started aloft, my soul became lead in my body the moment I approached the pilot-house.

 - Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, p. 344 in Mississippi Writings

Quote of the Hour: Worlds Within Worlds

I knew more than they did, more than Blau, more than most people do. People think of reality as immutable: solid and reassuring, that it is true merely because it is there.

But I knew better. Even Tirosh, that hack, had a sense of the real truth of it, in his wild inventions and his torrid fictions. The world is the sum of what it could be, what it might have been, and how it could have been.

I know how fragile the borders are between the worlds, how quickly madness settles, and fiction becomes fact. The world is always stranger, after all, than we imagine. You can call it quantum mechanics, you can call it Kaballah, but either way, it was my job to stop it from happening.

 - Lavie Tidhar, Unholy Land, p.146

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/30/23

As I type this, the post for last week hasn't gone live yet; I could add this book there. But I don't feel like it, so I won't. Instead, for the moment - unless and until I unwrap some Xmas presents I got myself - this week's post is another single book from the library.

Adventuregame Comics, Vol. 2: The Beyond is the second in a somewhat Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style series of graphic novels by Jason Shiga. Leviathan came out last year, and both follow the model of the (much larger, much more ambitious, vastly more work as far as I can see) decade-old Meanwhile..., still one of the best, most interesting GNs I've ever seen. I thought Leviathan was fun, if not as impressive and overwhelming as Meanwhile..., and it's good to see it is continuing as a series.

Quote of the Hour: The Chorus Girl in Her Native Habitat

At the corner of Fifth Avenue [on the MGM lot], a flock of impossibly tall hula dancers in mock-coconut bras gabbed and snapped their gum while they waited for a prop man rolling a golden sarcophagus to cross, then went on, their grass skirts rustling, shedding fronds. Was there anything more heartbreaking than starlets, their sisterly camaraderie, their shared dream so nakedly on display? A veteran, he was better at concealing his ambition and fear. He'd been worried, uncertain of the wisdom of his return, but the goofy business of production soothed the song-and-dance man in him. Here was a game company and a waiting stage, all they needed was a decent book, a few catchy tunes. He had to believe he was still capable of that.

 - Stewart O'Nan, West of Sunset, p.17

Quote of the Hour: Unspeakable, Uneatable

My feelings about foxhunting were (and remain) deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, I like foxes, and, since I don't keep chickens, have never regarded them as any particular threat, while at the same time I don't much like most of the people who hunt foxes. On the other hand, riding full tilt over unfamiliar stone walls has a certain appeal to me, as do all the ancient traditions of dress and behavior that go with foxhunting, and in fact constitute its chief attraction. Either you enjoy getting dressed up in what amounts to costume to risk your neck on a horse, or you don't, is what it amounts to. No great moral issue has ever seemed to me at stake, one way or the other.

 - Michael Korda, Country Matters, p. 39

Quote of the Hour: China Shops Comma Bulls In

Lady Hermione, who deprecated the introduction into the tea-table conversation in her drawing-room of reminiscences of one-eyed three-card-trick men, however sound their hearts, changed the subject by asking Bill if this was his first visit to Shropshire, and the latter, shaken to his foundations by the innocent query, once more kicked over the cake table. The fact was that Bill, though an admirable character, was always a little large for any room in which he was confined. To he ensure his not kicking over cake tables, you would have had to place him in the Gobi Desert.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, Full Moon, p.189

Quote of the Hour: Everything

For two months one summer, I thought golf could be everything. For the rest of my life, I thought, I'll put all of my energy into golf, all my spare time, all my passion, and that's what I did, for two months, until I realized that I could put all my energy into golf, all my spare time, all my passion, for the rest of my life. I don't think I've ever been so depressed.

 - Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, pp.5-6

Quote of the Hour: Absent-Minded

In a creatively nonproductive phase, my body almost mirrors my emotional state and I can become uncoordinated and a risk to myself and others as I bump into tables and walk into closing doors. When it gets like this I forget which side of the Atlantic I am on. I invariably trip up on the pavement, drive on the wrong side of the road, and generally become a danger to anyone who happens to be walking near me.

 - Ray Davies, Americana, p.150 

Quote of the Hour: Think of the Children

Africa is a lovely place - much lovelier, more peaceful, more resilient, and, if not prosperous, innately more self-sufficient than it is usually portrayed. But because Africa seems unfinished and so different from the rest of the world, a landscape on which a person can sketch a new personality, it attracts mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth. Such people come in all forms, and they loom large, White celebrities busybodying in Africa loom especially large. I watched Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie recently in Sudan, cuddling African children and lecturing the world on charity, and the image that sprang to my mind was of Tarzan and Jane.

 - Paul Theroux, "The Rock Star's Burden," in Figures in a Landscape, p.210-11

Quote of the Hour: Why They Call It an Emergency

We were come upon a was calculated, true, when emergency landing areas were designated, but in fact 'emergency landing area" was a sort of joke, wasn't it, intended to somehow give the impression that things were somehow under control somehow even after a crash, but they were not under control, were they? No, they were not under control; nothing was under control.

 - Algis Budrys, Hard Landing, p.330 (in SF Gateway Omnibus)

Quote of the Hour: Reality-based Community

Deane Hinton is an interesting man. Before he replaced Robert White in San Salvador he had served in Europe, South America, and Africa. He had been married twice, once to an American, who bore him five children before their divorce, and once to a Chilean, who had died not long before, leaving him the stepfather of her five children by an earlier marriage. At the time I met him he had just announced his engagement to a Salvadoran named Patricia de Lopez. Someone who is about to marry a third time, who thinks of himself as the father of ten, and who has spent much of his career in chancey posts - Mombasa, Kinasha, Santiago, San Salvador - is apt to be someone who believes in the possible.

 - Joan Didion, Salvador, p.398 in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live

Quote of the Hour: What the Smart Set Are Thinking This Year

Once again, I have too many quotes, so I'm burning them off as Quote of the Hour. I did this the last day of last year, and on the July 4th weekend this year, so I guess it's now a twice-yearly activity. For the few of you who, like me, still use RSS, apologies for spamming your feed.

She wasn't sure that the people she worked with and listened to and admired were right about everything, and as she got older it only became more confusing. But she had learned that, to her friends and colleagues, all the things her father believed were as musty and unattractive as a trouser suit in a department store sale. You could refuse to care about fashion if you wanted to, but if you were going to spend all your time in the company of with-it people, you needed to know when they were laughing at you.

 - Nick Hornby, Funny Girl, pp. 270-1

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Quote of the Week: Ego Sum Ergo Accumula

He loved possessions, not masses of them, but a select few that he did not part with. They gave a man self-respect. No ostentation but quality, and the love that cherished the quality. Possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence. It was as simple as that. And wasn't that worth something? He existed. Not many people in the world knew how to, even if they had the money.

 - Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley, p.249 in the 1999 Everyman's Ripley omnibus

Friday, December 29, 2023

One Star Wonders by Mike Lowery

Sometimes, you want to read a book, but not any specific book. You look at a bunch, and everything is not quite right. (As my family puts it, echoing the Berenstains: too beady too bumpy too leafy too lumpy.)

So you pick up something quick and light that you hope will be fun, to read something and get going again.

That's how I read One Star Wonders by Mike Lowery. I have no regrets.

In a previous era, it would sit next to a cash register in a thousand Borders across this great nation. It might be next to the cash-wrap in stores even now; I see it was published this year, so it's new enough that it might still be on promo. If you do happen to see it, while buying something else, pick it up and take a look - it might amuse you enough to grab it yourself.

(I read it digitally, from my library app, so I had a different experience.)

Lowery is an illustrator and author - I don't think he does "comics," exactly, but he's made a lot of illustrated books, for kids and old people, and he's got a detailed sketchbooky style with a lot of life and energy to it. He also travels a lot: looks like sometimes it's related to work, but mostly he seems to find ways to turn the travel he already wants to do into work. (Which is a great thing, in the old "pursue your passions" way.)

This book is an illustrated collection of quotes from reviews that Lowery has collected over the years. The quotes are by random people - you know, SoupLover9736 and DebbieFromScarsdale67 and 420Life6969; those kind of people - on various online review sites. The reviews are of famous landmarks and locations in the world: the Taj Mahal, the Acropolis, the Statue of Liberty, stuff like that.

And, as you may guess from the title, all of the reviews are dismissive.

Some of them are things you will have heard other places, such as this take on Venice: "You will remember the smell of raw sewage."

Some seem to miss the point, as on China's Tianzi Mountains: "Only awesome if you like scenery."

Lowery puts each quote on a single page, with a drawing of the place. Again, he has a cartoony, quick style, so they're all recognizable but fun and cartoony.

This is a short book, amusing and quickly read and quite frivolous in the best ways. What more can I say about it? I'm going to see what else Lowery has done for people my age, which is as good a recommendation I can make: I read this guy's silly frivolous book, and it made me look for more.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

The Great Pencil Quest by Will Henry

Dependability and consistency are underrated as virtues - often even seen as faults. But a creator who can do good work, over and over again, in the same style and with similar results should be treasured. Dependably inventive and consistently amusing are wonderful things.

Will Henry, creator of the daily strip Wallace the Brave, is both of those: he has a strong, mixed cast that lets him do different kinds of jokes, a penchant for longer continuities rare these days, and a detail-filled, unfussy art style that sells all of the wild ideas and antics. Wallace is both dependable and consistent - but still manages to surprise, regularly, with a grace note or goofy concept.

The Great Pencil Quest is the new book collecting the strip; it came out about a month ago, I think, and follows four previous collections. (All of which I recommend - Wallace the Brave, Snug Harbor Stories, Wicked Epic Adventures, Are We Lost Yet? - and, in the way of a good daily strip, any of which could be a good way to start reading.)

This time out, it seems to be all daily strips - the previous ones included Sundays as well - but I could be mistaken, since the strips are somewhat reconfigured in the books to fit onto taller-than-wide pages. Each page has generally three or four panels, which always look like a single strip. (Henry does one-long-panel strips every so often, too - usually wordless, usually with multiple characters reacting to a single situation - and those are collected here in small clumps and shown uncut. I think in the physical book they run vertically to fit on the pages; I read this digitally, where space can reconfigure from page to page.)

There are 167 pages of comics here, so my guess is that it's about half a year of strips. Some of them were familiar, but some weren't - but Rose, a fairly new character, is in the book consistently, so it's mostly recent. It might well be a run of six specific months, maybe last winter or 21-22; these all take place during the school year, since Wallace takes its rhythms from the lives of its mostly grade-school cast.

And I've already written about this strip, at length, four times. I pretty much agree with all of that, though I see I was more tentative about my praise of Wallace the first couple of times. Well, I wanted to see if Henry would be dependable and consistent, I guess. He's proven that he is, with about five years of regular strips since Wallace hit newspapers. Even better, that's formed a solid base for his inventiveness to leap from - Wallace is always funny, always drawn with verve and enthusiasm, but some days and for some sequences it's more exciting and inventive and just fun than that.

To my mind, Wallace is the great traditional newspaper strip running today, the heir to things like Peanuts and Cul de Sac. It's wonderful to see that level of energy and joy on the comics page regularly, and it makes me think, just maybe, the American daily strip is not doomed, so long as Will Henry is working there.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Three Rocks by Bill Griffith

Who expected that the creator of Zippy the Pinhead would turn into a non-fiction graphic novelist? More specifically, that he would build a career creating biographies in graphic format - first his own mother's long-running affair with a cartoonist (Invisible Ink); then "Schlitzie Surtees," who performed as a pinhead in circuses in the early 20th century (Nobody's Fool); and now a full-scale biography of a fellow cartoonist, with another biography listed as coming next.

One book can be an aberration, two is a trend - three is at least a career phase, especially in a field so time-intensive as cartooning. Interestingly, there's stylistic tics and storytelling choices in those books that echo what he's done in the long-running Zippy comics - most obviously the use of his own avatar, "Griffy," as a viewpoint and narrator in the story itself, the person telling us this story.

Bill Griffith came to Three Rocks - which has the somewhat cumbersome double-barreled subtitle The Story of Ernie Bushmiller, The Man Who Created Nancy - a decade into this new phase of his work, with habits of research and organization already established. This is a more conventional biography than either Invisible Ink, the story of one aspect of a life, or Nobody's Fool, which was hampered by a lack of serious records about "Surtees" and any way into the mind of his subject. Ernie Bushmiller created a body of work, lived fully in the world, and talked about his work regularly, both in published materials and to people who were still alive for Griffith to interview.

Griffith has long been a fan of Bushmiller's work, particularly focused on the simple clarity of Bushmiller's lines and gags, how he made cartoons (as others have said) that's it's almost impossible to not read and get immediately. So readers might wonder how he goes about recreating Bushmiller's characters and scenes - but the surprising answer, buried in the backmatter, is that he didn't.

As it says on the very last page of the book: "All drawings of Nancy, Sluggo, Fritzi Ritz, and/or any other creation of Ernie Bushmiller in this book are drawn by Bushmiller and have not been drawn by the author." In an odd way, Three Rocks is a posthumous collaboration between Bushmiller and Griffith, with Griffith recontextualizing hundreds of Bushmiller drawings to tell this long story of their creator's life and work. Griffith doesn't talk about tools, but I suspect he used Photoshop (or a similar program) to extract the figures he needed, clean up any visual artifacts, replace lettering, and collage those figures into his own pages - or into the many mostly-Bushmiller pages here, since Griffith also uses Bushmiller backgrounds and objects, particularly on pages where Nancy comments on her creator.

It's a bit post-modern, but Nancy was always playing with forms and art itself - from a middle-brow stance, of course, and all in service of a good gag - so it's appropriate, and there are a lot of somewhat surreal Nancy images for Griffith to work from. For example: that cover. The Nancy is Bushmiller, but the cross-hatching on the rocks looks like Griffith, so I think the rest of the cover is his work.

Bushmiller's life wasn't particularly exciting: he went to work at the New York World as a copy boy at the age of fourteen, and his whole career flowed from that. He never jumped syndicates or papers, and he did the Fritzi Ritz strip - later retitled Nancy, after the character he added to it - from 1925 through his death in 1982. Griffith tells that story here, with digressions by Griffy and Bushmiller's own characters about the nature of art and humor, what makes a great "snapper" (the final panel that makes the joke work), and other related topics.

It's a fairly long and dense book, circling Bushmiller's life but, in the end, more about the impulse to create - and, in particular, to create something funny. Both Bushmiller and Griffith are and were masters of that. It's thought-provoking and funny itself - both in the full Bushmiller strips it reprints (many of them, mostly shot from old scrapbooks) and in Griffith's new work here.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Reviewing the Mail: Special Festive Edition 2023

I've gotten into the habit of doing these "Reviewing the Mail" posts, when I have books to list, on Sundays. That's fine when I only get books once a week, but sometimes, even in these lesser latter days, it happens faster than that.

So today I'm listing things I unwrapped yesterday, even though I already have a short post scheduled for this coming Sunday. I did briefly consider pushing this one out to the next Sunday, in January, but I'm also thinking about a possible bookstore trip later this week, and would that then mean those books would get listed on January 14? That way lies madness.

So, anyway: all of these were presents. Several of them I bought myself, which I will not apologize for - it's the best way to make sure you get what you want.

System Collapse is the new "Murderbot" book by Martha Wells, seventh in the series. They're kind of a big deal. You may have heard about them. And Wells has been a fun and inventive writer for a long time - I read her first book way back in my SFBC days, and I think pretty early in those days, too - so it is wonderful to see her get a big success when she's been doing such good work for so long.

4 Fantastic Novels is a collection of - just in case we have any slow students in the back, barely paying attention - four novels, which are fantastic in at least two ways, by the inimitable Daniel Pinkwater. The books are originally from 1979 to 1992, and the omnibus was published in 2000. I had a copy of this before my flood, but I've been without it for about a decade now. My long national nightmare is now over.

The Demon Princes, Volume One collects the first three books in that five-book SF series by Jack Vance. I just finished the last of the four "Dying Earth" books in that Vance omnibus, so I wanted something else to pick up intermittently overt the next couple of years, and Demon Princes it will be. As I recall, this is some of his best work, so I'm looking forward to revisiting it.

The Problem of Susan and Other Stories is another one of the series of books from Dark Horse that seem to be aimed at adapting every last short story Neil Gaiman ever wrote into comics. This one has two stories and two poems adapted into comics, which I think are each drawn by someone different. (The book is still wrapped in plastic as I write this.) Credited on the cover, besides Gaiman, are P. Craig Russell, Scott Hampton, Paul Chadwick, and Lovern Kindzierski (who I think is a colorist, so maybe one person did both poems?)

Children of Palomar and Other Tales is the fifteenth book in the uniform "Love and Rockets Library" series, collecting that long-running and excellent series. This one is all Gilbert Hernandez, with a couple of stories written or co-written by his brother Mario - it collects Julio's Day and New Tales of Old Palomar/The Children of Palomar, plus those also-with-Mario tales.

Monica is the big new Daniel Clowes graphic novel this year. He's talented and always an interesting creator, but I've found his stuff chillier and more distant as I've gotten older (or he has, or we both have). This one has gotten ecstatic reviews, which I hope is a good sign.

And last is Fallout: The Vault Dweller's Official Cookbook by Victoria Rosenthal, a line extension from a video game series I play a lot. It got it from Thing One, and I don't think it's a joke gift. I don't cook much, and these all have odd names (as fitting the theme and fictional world), but I think these are all real recipes that can be made in the real world with real food, that make things that people will generally enjoy eating. In other words: it's the kind of book that could be a joke, but I don't think it is. I guess I'll have to see.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

This is a cliché, but our impulses often conflict or interfere with each other. Yes, yes, I know you already know that. (At least I hope you do.) But stick with me.

So I want to read more good books, as I'm sinking into middle age. And I also have the habit of rambling about everything I read here, no matter how little anyone else in the world cares. That's the conflict.

When I read something new, I can at least be a small ray of light pointed at it. When I read comics or fantastika, I have at least my history in those genres (I judged awards! I edited stuff ! I used to be somebody, in a small way!) to lean on.

More and more, though, I'm reading Big Famous Books, by Big Famous People, some of those books older than I am - and I am, as I've implied, somewhat old myself - and I keep getting myself tangled around that axle, pointing out (counterproductively) that you folks have no reason to take anything I say seriously.

But, then again, none of us have much of a reason to take any artistic judgements by others seriously. It's all force of argument and inertia and existing prejudices and borrowed gravitas and stuff like that. So: I'm going to try to stop running through this argument each time. Let's see if I can.

Those thoughts are brought to you by the fact that Patricia Highsmith's 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley came across to me as a well-written, psychologically smart...fairly standard noir novel of the era, of the subset published by larger and more reputable publishers and in which the POV criminal gets away with it. Those two things are tightly linked, though it's hard to say which is the cause and which the effect: the books from paperback houses could be well-written, could be smart, could be just as good - but the criminal would always be caught and punished, or possibly die in a thematically appropriate way.

I don't mean that as a negative: I like mid-century noir, have read in it off and on for a long time, and think it's a deep well with things I can probably keep digging up for as long as I'm still able to read. But The Talented Mr. Ripley came to me in fancy literary-novel dress, and it was an interesting experience to peer more closely and see the disreputable character lurking in those borrowed clothes. 

I read Ripley, I think, because I realized I had two copies of it, in different omnibuses, on my shelves, and took that as A Sign. So I read it in the 1999 Everyman's Library of the three Ripley novels - back in those days when there were only three; two more came later - which also was a big clue that this noir novel would not go in the obvious direction towards justice and retribution.

It's a 1955 novel, set at that time. Tom Ripley is a young man not overly burdened with conscience or purpose: he's running some vague short cons in New York, caught up in a vaguely sleazy downtown crowd he's coming to hate, and wants more without having a clear vision of what he wants or any desire to work for it. He falls into an opportunity when the father of a vague acquaintance, Dickie Greenleaf, hires him to go to Europe, find Dickie, and convince him to come back home and take up a boring job at the father's quite profitable boat-manufacturing operation.

Tom sees this as a way to get to Europe with money in his pocket, and, like so much else in his life, he's happy to let other details figure themselves out later. He goes. He finds Dickie in a small Italian town, and befriends him. He becomes the third wheel in Dickie's not-quite-courtship of fellow American expatriate Marge Sherwood. She distrusts Tom, while Dickie mostly likes him, in that vague way rich people have when nothing impinges or bothers them very much.

Things escalate from there; if you've heard of the book, you probably know how. It is noir, of a type: that's a clue. And Tom both wants to be Dickie - take over his life, live the same kind of life - and, in a sublimated '50s way, wants to win Dickie, get him away from Marge. (There's a bunch of period-appropriate demurrals, mostly in dialogue to each other, of anyone being "queer," and Tom comes across as mostly asexual, but there's some level of sex in Tom's fascination with Dickie. I gather the later novels make Tom officially bisexual: from the evidence here, he's either uninterested in sex entirely or gay but entirely closeted from himself.)

I won't fill in the dots: it's a good novel, and a short one. (It's also been turned into a movie that's generally well-regarded - I've never seen that and probably won't.) If you've ever liked writers like Jim Thompson and David Goodis and Chester Himes and Charles Williams, you'll probably like this one. Highsmith is mostly working in that contemporary paperback idiom, but breaking away from it to have a more serious-novel ending.

Monday, December 25, 2023

This Year: 2022

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

This is not a Christmas song. Today's post has nothing to do with today; it's the end of the series that I've been doing all year. Sorry to disappoint you, or maybe happy to reassure you, depending.

This is the end. But I've liked writing about music once a week, and will have something new for 2024 - the fact that last week was a two-woman duo and today is a solo artist might just be a hint as to the direction I'm taking for the new year.

For the last song of the series, for the newest one, I picked a new artist, vastly younger than me and different from me, someone I discovered randomly, with a lovely touching, deeply personal song. All of the things that are great about popular music: it's always moving, always changing, with new people and ideas and sounds and songs.

The last song is Disco Ball by Caitlin Cobb-Vialet.

I’ve never been known for my patience

I love a song that can just drop a line like that in the middle - discursive, introspective, self-aware.

To close out the series, it's - yes, you guessed it! - one last break-up song, one last singer with a head full of regrets and a mouth full of thoughts that come tumbling out.

I’m starting to think you don’t
Want to be seen
I’m stopping myself from believing that you might
Exist on the same plane as me

There are a million ways to say "this isn't working" or "this is already broken." Cobb-Vialet has a great one here - fully fitting the talky, discursive narrator of this song, who runs around and round the same ideas, showing how restless she is at the same time she says so.

I couldn’t wait one more day
But I would wait for a month
For a year
If I had known at the time

This is a lovely, personal, pointed song. I don't know if it's "true," but it's as true as it needs to be for the space of a four-minute song. And it's a great song by a great new talent - Cobb-Vialet was just out of college when this album was recorded, and I think that's still less than two years ago. We could be at the start of decades more music like this: I hope so.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/23/2023

One book this week, again from the library. This one was on the new-fiction shelves, alongside a bunch of novels - the first time I've ever seen a graphic novel there. (I think the current TV adaptation has more than a little to do with that.)

Anyway, I don't have high hopes, but I was willing to take a look:

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency: The Interconnectedness of All Kings is a newish (copyright 2016, which is longer ago than I thought) story about the character Douglas Adams created and wrote two novels about in the 1990s. I have no idea why Dirk got a line extension twenty years later, but I guess the wheels of commerce must always grind. This story is written by Chris Ryall, with art by Tony Akins (pencils for two-thirds), Ilias Kyriazis (pencils for the rest), and John Livesay (inks). A project that switches penciler in the middle of a short run is generally not a good sign, but whatever bumps happened during creation of the miniseries a decade ago are clearly baked in now.

The story apparently sees Gently go to San Diego (?!) to handle three cases, which seems deeply random, even given that both the huge North American comics convention and this book's publisher IDW are headquartered there. I guess I'll see if it makes more sense in the reading.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Quote of the Week: Can a Woman Be a Flâneur?

By now there were other people at the gym, though the man on the bicycle next to me was going at a speed barely fast enough to sustain life, while the woman beside him, who was on a treadmill, was walking at the right speed for window-shopping on the Boulevard Saint-Germain on an especially sunny day when your heart is filled with love and your pockets are filled with money; it was as thought she had set the machine at "Saunter."

 - Adam Gopnik, "The Rules of the Sport," pp.67-68 in Paris to the Moon

Friday, December 22, 2023

War and Peas: Funny Comics for Dirty Lovers by Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich

Another day, another collection of a webcomic I don't normally read - I do tend to get into these grooves, don't I? (I wish Europe Comics was still on my library app, so I could keep up the "reading stacks of random BD by French people" groove, but we don't get to choose the brane we're sorted into.)

Anyway, this is the first collection of the webcomic War and Peas, titled (somewhat obviously) War and Peas: Funny Comics for Dirty Lovers. It's been running for more than ten years (since 2011), comes out once a week, and this first (and, so far, only) collection came out in 2020.

A lot of aspects of the War and Peas experience are familiar: the two creators (Jonathan Kunz and Elizabeth Pich) met in art school, they have a Patreon these days, the strips start out as one-offs but a number of characters (particularly the self-named Slutty Witch, on the cover, but also including Death, a researcher and her robot, and a eventually-married couple) and storylines grow over the course of the book. The art style is on the simple/cartoony style, which is a good choice for the often dark or cynical jokes, including very distinctive (and notably large) dot eyes in otherwise blank faces.

It has a dependable gag-a-day rhythm; even the continuing characters don't have storylines, just moments. The jokes do tend to be cynical or dark - this is a modern, webby thing - but not mean or forced. It is funny, in that old juxtaposing-odd-things way - Kunz and Pich just have a really broad world from which to pick things to juxtapose.

One possibly unique thing: Kunz and Pich are German - the art school they met at was the School of Fine Arts in Saarbrücken - but War and Peas is written in English. (Well, I haven't done serious research. Maybe they're both Americans who happened to go to art school in Saarbrücken? If so, ignore me.)

So this is another one of those strips - you know the kind. If you're the kind of person who complains that newspaper strip comics is an ossified and depressing medium - I am, intermittently - it's exactly the area you should be checking out more often. I am, intermittently - as in right now. Funny Comics for Dirty Lovers is fun, and has both Death and a Slutty Witch on the cover. What else could you ask for?

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Finder: Voice by Carla Speed McNeil

I'm not caught up yet with Finder, but I'm getting close: there are two more books after this one, which means I'm now in the back third. And I find the world-building is still what causes me the most consternation, but I'll try to hold that for the end.

Voice was published in 2011, collecting pages published online a few years earlier and (I think) somewhat revised for book publication. It's the ninth Finder collection; see my posts on Talisman, Library Vol. 1, Dream Sequence, Mystery Date, The Rescuers, and Five Crazy Women for more background.

The world is medium-future, set on an Earth that seems to have been depopulated. There are some cultural artifacts from our 20th century, but McNeil never explains how we got to this world. It's divided into a few gigantic domed cities, which seem to be more a vertical stack of basically 20th century cities (literally, sitting on top of each other and held up by handwavium since we never see the massive structural columns that would require) rather than the more usual Trantorian hives of corridors and apartments.

This is because, I think, McNeil wants to have an essentially late-capitalist 21st century society in those cities, with some shiny advanced tech, to tell the stories she wants to tell. So there need to be individual houses - gigantic mansions and hovels - that stand alone, have streets in front of them, and cars whizzing by. There need to be dive bars with windows in their bathrooms one can shimmy out of, and recognizable malls. If the dome means the poor sections are noirishly gloomy all of the time, well, that's a bonus.

Living in the city is a massively regimented and stratified society with no apparent government, organized almost entirely by custom and ruled by a matrix of self-defining and often competing "clans," who form the aristocracy and have all of the money. For example, Medwars are all dark-haired people who get medical degrees and work as cops - this is almost literally how McNeil describes them, albeit not all at once. In the books, we tend to focus on the Llaverac clan in the city of Anvard, a flighty, image-obsessed, all-female-presenting group of mostly media personalities to which the Family of Protagonists belong. They may be more corrupt, greedy, and Procrustean than the average clan, for maximum drama, but McNeil's notes make it clear they're not different, just more obviously flamboyant about it.

McNeil here finally makes it clear that most people are not full clan members - that's been implicit for a while, and is the thrust of the main plot of Voice. Her notes also say pretty explicitly that the rest of the population have only bad options: there's seemingly no way to just do a job, open a store or provide a service, so everyone not part of the aristocratic clans is either an indentured servant of someone in the clans or dependent on "patronage" from an aristocrat, which McNeil notes repeatedly is not just about being a sex it's probably mostly being a sex slave.

The rest of the world is desolate wilderness, at least according to those city-dwellers. (They may be somewhat biased.) In particular, we've never seen anything within a million miles of farming anywhere in this world; maybe they have massive hydroponics levels in those cities or maybe it's just a detail McNeil doesn't care about. Living in that wilderness are Ascians, who I'm afraid come across as Wild West Movie Indians a lot of the time: principled and free, with Strange Ways and Complicated Rituals,  second-class citizens even below the "culls" and half-breeds of the clans, their craggy faces filled with pain at the indignities they are forced to endure in this sad world.

Voice is the story of Rachel, oldest child of the Grosvenor family we've been following from the beginning. (Her sister Marcie's story was told in Talisman.) She's the one of the three kids who basically fits Llaverac standards, so it's her job in the family to be accepted as a full-clan member, to be the aristocrat who can protect the other members of the family for the next generation. And this is the story of cotillion season, more or less: a televised pageant (since Llaveracs are dramatic down to their core) in which that year's "girls" compete for however many slots are available, to either become part of the ruling class for the rest of their lives or, if they fail, to have a moment of fame helping them to find a fairly nice person to whom to be a sex slave.

(I may be slightly exaggerating. Prostitution is respected in this world, as we saw in Mystery Date. But it also seems to be a career choice a lot of attractive young people find themselves shoved into for lack of other options, and I don't think their later lives go all that well.)

Rachel is competing this year, one of twenty young Llaverac "girls" (many of whom have penises, as we see in the first scene). And if she does not get clan status...well, her mother is still around, and fairly powerful. They have other connections. Her life won't be immediately destroyed. But the options for both her and her two sisters will narrow massively, and the clock will start ticking against the time their mother is no longer around to protect them. (There's something very Jane Austen about the core set-up, under all the girls-with-penises and shrugging acceptance of the sex-slave career path.)

Voice's main plot is set in motion by an act of violence: Rachel is mugged, on the way home from what seems to be the first night of this gala competition. And she loses the physical token she absolutely needs, as part of this complicated ritual, to assert her right to be a full-clan Llaverac.

Rachel is flighty and has a deep well of self-loathing, but this is an existential crisis that she throws herself into - she has to get that token (an antique ring) back, or scheme some kind of replacement. She thinks if she can find Jaeger, her mother's occasional half-Ascian lover and the overall main character of the whole Finder series, that he can solve the problem for her.

One of the main types of fiction, for centuries, is Protagonist Faces Impossible Problem, Sees How Everyone Else Has Failed, and Succeeds (Because Protagonist). That's more-or-less what happens here: Rachel's story, as a Grosvenor, is happy in the end, but McNeil's notes make it clear that there are...millions, maybe? of similar stories every single year in this society, and they mostly end with the culls becoming sex slaves, or, at best, indentured servants who are also probably expected to have sex with their bosses, at least as long as they're nubile and attractive.

And that led me to my main worldbuilding complaint this time. This story starts with a small act of violence, the mugging. That made me realize how little violence there is in this world, despite immense pressures and no clear government above the clans. We see cops a lot here, as we have before. But McNeil makes it clear that they're all Medwars, and she also makes it clear that each clan is most concerned about the clan, and handles things their way. Even assuming that the other clans bribe cops six ways from Sunday - they must, right? - when it comes down to it, the police are already a distinct, discrete, separate and self-organized group in this society, and I still don't see why they would care about or listen to anyone outside their clan about anything.

But, more importantly: this is a world with only bad choices, most of the time, for most young people. It is profoundly unfair, and obviously so, corrupt and twisted - with mass-media to spread stories of that unfairness.

There would be multiple terrorist movements in a city like Anvard. Maybe an Ascian one as the most radical, setting bombs to collapse major parts of the city. Young anarchists or communists, some variety of visions for a cleaner, fairer world on the other side of bloodshed. Maybe even clan-aligned groups that attack rival clans, a la Ireland in the 1970s or the Middle East for the past seventy years.

The clans also would not be static. One or two might be actually ancient, but I'm sure several have been smashed in the past century, destroyed by combinations of bad planning, scheming by rivals, the inevitable paucity of their new-member pipeline, and just bad luck. And others would have jumped up - maybe street gangs, maybe corporations - creating new clans with initially vague criteria or taking over the name of defunct clan and pretending to be its inheritor.

This world just seems way too static for how much stress everyone in it is under. There's just no way that it keeps chugging along in the same vein this way. Maybe the next city over was destroyed by a terrorist bomb, and everyone is scared and tentative because of that. Maybe the Medwar cops mostly spend their time smashing cells of radical groups looking to destroy the entire society.

Maybe. But, even though the stories McNeil tells are engrossing and thought-provoking, I can't help but think this whole world is collapsing even as we look at it: that it's going through it's own late-capitalism crisis, and McNeil just hasn't shown us the bloody end of it yet.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Sorry I Ruined Your Childhood by Ben Zaehringer

I'm reading a bunch of collections of webcomics lately, for no obvious reason. More specifically: books of webcomics I don't regularly read, to get a concentrated burst of new gag-a-day stuff.

Well, let's not be precious here: there's no mystery. I've always liked the rhythms of a gag-a-day strip. I'm of the age that grew up with newspaper dailies - they used to be printed larger, they used to be more varied within a paper and between papers, they used to be mostly by their actual creators who were mostly still alive. That field has gotten stonier and duller over the last three decades, obviously. The only newspaper strip that I currently read in reprint collections is Will Henry's Wallace the Brave - which I highly recommend, by the way.

Luckily, newspapers aren't the only home for gag-a-day. Webcomics platforms might be poorly capitalized, sometimes fly-by-night, difficult to discover or navigate, and vastly less ubiquitous than newspapers used to be, but they exist, and the barrier for entry is far lower. (Is that the mantra of the Internet Age? "Sure, it's crappier in almost every aspect of the experience, but everyone can and already does it!")

That's how I got to Sorry I Ruined Your Childhood, at least. It's the first collection of Ben Zaehringer's Berkeley Mews strip, which can be found on GoComics. (One of the two big platforms for newspaper-style comics, and the more-easily-accessible one at that.) It was published in 2019, by Andrews McMeel, who sometimes seem to be keeping the lights on for gag-a-day comics in book form all by themselves.

Childhood collects 137 strips - my guess is that these are the first 137 strips of Berkeley Mews, maybe even in roughly original-publication order, but Zaehringer has no continuing characters or situations, so he could easily have arranged these in a different order on purpose. Most commonly, they're three equal-sized panels, like late Peanuts, but Zaehringer also does strips as vertical tiers or four panels pretty regularly. That's the one clear advantage of a webcomic: a JPG file on a page doesn't have to fit any size or configuration constraints; HTML will adjust around whatever size and shape it is.

Zaehringer draws round-headed people, often in bright colors, usually without hair - he can and does draw in other styles for specific gags, especially references (Zelda, Mario, Disney movies, etc.), but he's got a standard style for the general gags. The title implies that these are mostly comics about cultural references from his childhood (mostly the '90s), but that's not really the case. I didn't do a count, but it's only maybe a third of the comics that are references like that - and, even there, I'm probably including vaguer things like "Santa" and "God on a cloud creating the Earth."

The bottom line is: I like Zaehringer's gags. They're funny, they're well-constructed, and he's a varied enough artist to switch up his style to sell each gag the way it needs to be sold. He's a bit like a more prolific, but not quite as protean, Perry Bible Fellowship. I'm looking forward to catching up with this strip.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik

I am not the guy you go to for deep explication of a generation-old #1 bestseller. (I'm frankly not the guy you, or anyone, goes to for anything: I'm some random blogger still typing things out a good ten years after the form withered and the things that made me vaguely interesting or relevant faded into the background. But leave that part aside; even at what I would laughably call my peak, no one would care what I said about Adam Gopnik.)

I found Paris to the Moon in a library sale a decade ago, ten years after it was huge. I read it this year, after taking it off the shelf a bunch of times in the intervening years to look at it. Bottom line: it's well-written and thoughtful, but one of those books that tries to obscure how miscellaneous it is, and also is a generation-old at this point.

Gopnik was a feature writer for The New Yorker - still is, but was in the mid-90s - and he and his wife Martha had been talking about living in Paris for a while. They'd just had their first child, a boy Lucas, and realized this was the last moment such a move would be relatively easy. They both had creative-class work that could be done anywhere, and the New Yorker had a history of having random writers report back from Paris and, luckily, no one in that role at the moment. So they did it.

They stayed there for about five years, roughly 1995-1999, and I gather Gopnik continued to write about his family after the return to New York City, producing a book I may have to look for eventually. But this is the full chronicle of this period of their lives: what he produced, journalistically, during that stint in Paris.

Paris to the Moon collects what seems to be eighteen New Yorker pieces, probably somewhat edited - with an additional new piece, somewhat shorter, as an introduction - and four longer "Christmas Journal" pieces that each sums up a year and which may not have been previously published. They are placed in what seems to be chronological order (at least of publication; some cover periods of time that overlap), and, as I said above, are pretty miscellaneous: the through-line is their family life, especially Lucas's growing up from an infant to a small boy, but most of the pieces are one-offs either personal or let-me-tell-you-about-this-thing-in-France.

Gopnik is thoughtful, interesting, and very quotable:

One of the striking things about Paris is that it is filled with old people who actually look old: bent, fitted out with canes, but dining and lunching and taking the air and walking their small, indifferent dogs along with everybody else.

 - "The Chill," p.73

Some of the pieces in here are more ephemeral than others - the epic two-part story of how Gopnik and a large number of other journalistic and publishing people failed to affect, in any serious way, the takeover of their favorite brasserie by a restaurant mogul is probably the height of the "amusing to read, absolutely meaningless twenty years later" aspect of the book.

But some, as with an article about a major, and very late, war-crimes trial coming out of WWII, are perhaps equally relevant today, and Gopnik just as quotable:

To deliver a child to the secret police is as large a crime against humanity as you ever need to find, no matter where you think he is going or what kind of car he is going to travel in.

 - "Papon's Paper Trail," p.122

But the bulk of the book ends up being personal - the big news stories are largely about his angle on them, and the greatest pleasures of the book are in the Gopnik family life. (Gopnik knew this, in assembling the book; he says as much in the first piece. Good writers know their material.) And, near the end, the family grows with another child, in a way that Gopnik the writer must have thought was the perfect bit of material to close out the collection. He got some good stuff out of that, too:

In New York, in other words, pregnancy is a medical condition that, after proper care by people in white coats and a brief hospital stay, can have a "positive outcome." In Paris it is something that has happened because of sex, which, with help and counsel, can end with your being set free to go out and have more sex. In New York pregnancy is a ward in the house of medicine; in Paris it is a chapter in a sentimental education, a strange consequence of the pleasures of the body.

 - "Like a King," p.301

Paris to the Moon had a vogue, but I bet it's still read avidly today. I mean, people still read the Peter Mayle books about Provence, and those are a decade older. Good writing lasts, and this is good writing. It may be bittersweet to look at the dates and realize the small boy traipsing through these pages is probably about to turn thirty - I'm not going to look him up to see what he's doing - but that's how time works. This made me want to read more Gopnik, more New Yorker writers, more about Paris - more good books, in general, and who could ask for more?

Monday, December 18, 2023

This Year: 2021

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

For 2021, I'm going to repeat myself. I posted about this song when I first heard it, as Your Bluesy Stomp of the Moment.

What I said then:

Trust me: it's awesome. Psychedelic guitar rock meets bluesy swamp-rock. I just listened to it three times in a row across two devices: that's how awesome.

This is Raven by The Living Pins, which is two women from Austin, TX. My understanding is that they've been around the music industry for a while - maybe not quite my age, since I am old, but not kiddies - but The Living Pins was a new collaboration, and you can hear both of those things in the music: they know what they're doing, and they're having a lot of fun making it new. (They've since been putting out music semi-regularly since this initial EP - also a good sign!)

Bye bye freaky little monster children

I have no idea what any of the lyrics mean, but I love that first line of the refrain, and admit to singing along with it almost every time.

This is another song that just hits me with the sound: another chugging beat, not fast but relentless, and that bluesy guitar winding in and out and around, until we get the quick solo after the second verse.

And just remember: no one here gets...uh huh yeah. Words to live by, whatever they mean. The very best songs mean whatever you need them to mean, whatever you bring to them.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 12/16/2023

Another week, another new book from the library - as I type this (pretty early in the week), there's only one, but maybe I'll have to amend this post if I get things actually in the mail.

The Kaiju Preservation Society is a recent humorous SF novel from John Scalzi, who is pretty well-known in those parts. I realized I've missed his last, um, eight or ten novels - I have The Human Division and The End of All Things on the to-be-read shelves, so that was probably when I stalled out - and figured I should remedy that. Back when I edited SF, I thought Scalzi was an incredibly talented writer whose books leaned harder into the quick and facile stuff than I wanted them to. These days, I'm often looking for quick and funny reads, so I might be more in tune with his sensibility - I'll see.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Quote of the Week: You See But Do Not Observe

"In a world ruled by men, a woman's looks are more important than her moral character. Women are to be seen and not heard. That is why my audience was always so enchanted and somewhat afraid of me. I had attained great power as a woman simply because I was invisible yet possessed something men desire: knowledge of their fate, their destiny. I will not join the world until my outer form and inner being can be perceived at once, each equal to the other. So I wait, and test the waters now and then by luring a man to show me what he sees."

 - the title character, on p.272 of Jeffrey Ford's The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque

Friday, December 15, 2023

Reset by Peter Bagge

I'm running close to a decade behind reading Peter Bagge's books - but, the weird thing is, I seem to still be reading all of his books, just with that big time-delay. I have no explanation, and may catch up one of these days: cartooning is time-intensive work, and even someone as prolific as Bagge doesn't pile up books the way a prose writer like Stephen King or Nora Roberts does.

That's as close to a reason why I read his 2012 miniseries/2013 graphic novel Reset here at the end of 2023. As usual, I find bits of the worldbuilding to be weird, especially in retrospect: maybe because of the things Bagge needed to create this story, maybe because I fundamentally don't agree with his assumptions about life and society in general.

Bagge's worlds are full of mildly updated '50s gender-essentialism: men are hot-headed and often physically violent, because They Are Men and the World Is Frustrating. Sometimes they are divided into the smart ones (effete, tentative, too weak for this world, typically wearing glasses) and the strong ones (stupid as a post, addicted to incredibly counterproductive ideas, full of zeal and energy for all the wrong things, typically wearing mullets). Women are sneaky, vindictive shrews who you (the reader, who is of course a man) can never trust and who drive you (ditto) crazy all the time, and usually won't even let you fuck them! (Not that you want to: damn harpies! But a man has needs!)

This time out, the man is Guy Krause, right in the middle of that Bagge male stereotype: we meet him in a mandated traffic-safety class, where he was forced after a road-rage incident. Krause is a minor celebrity, a former stand-up comedian turned movie actor, maybe B or C-list at best but recently hitting a stretch of bad luck and bad breaks.

The woman is Dr. Angie Minor, who meets him in that class - with ulterior motives, we soon learn - and recruits him for a research project.

That project is not what it seems to be, of course. And Bagge seems to be interested in yet a third aspect of the project, which makes the book a bit lumpy and thematically jumbled. But let me start with what it seems to be.

Angie is working for an unnamed company, developing a fancy new VR headset and associated software program. They claim not to know what they'll use it for yet, but they can create a Choose-Your-Adventure version of a subject's life, after some serious, presumably expensive research, to build the world-model. (Anyone who understands capitalism will have warning bells ringing in their heads at this point: there's no plausible product here aside from maybe masturbatory fantasies for billionaires.)

So Guy will be put in a chair with this headset and some fancy electrodes and relive important moments of his life, while Angie and her tech, Ted, monitor him to find out...something they're unclear about. The title comes from the fact that Guy has one control, a button that pops him out of the simulation and resets it back to the base state: the beginning of this particular scenario.

It is also the big honking metaphor at the center of the book, of course: what would you do if you could live the important moments in your life over? If you could Reset, what would you do? Bagge runs away from this idea almost immediately; it doesn't fit his plot and his tech is too crude to really be believable to the user.

Ray is both a bad subject - headstrong and unwilling to be led and obnoxious (did I say he's a Bagge main character yet? I may be repeating myself) - and the only possible subject for this custom bespoke simulation based entirely on his life, which seems really weird and becomes the obvious Chekhov Gun looming over the whole book. And, yes, the real explanation of Angie's research comes into it - though Bagge never gives any adequate explanation of why Guy was chosen, aside from the very weak initial "you're famous enough that it was easy to research you" one, which is only plausible if they sign up the subject before doing the research.

The plot is more about what's really going on and less about Ray's re-living his life, though I think Bagge wants the core of this story to be what Ray learns. (He does re-connect with a girl he had a crush on in high school, for example.)

Again, in a Bagge world, everyone is selfish and horrible and unpleasant - occasionally not all that bad to specific other people that they like, at that moment, but you can never count on that. So people yell at each other, act out, ramp up the experiments, maliciously comply with instructions, and much more. We do find out the secret reason for the project in the end, and it's dumb and vague and doesn't make a whole lot of sense that that would lead to this.

So it's a Bagge book: full of talky, angry people with rubber-hose limbs gesticulating at each other, spitting fire, yelling, and so on. I don't have an overly sunny view of humanity, I think, but even I think he can be a bit much. This one is amusing and doesn't have any unpleasant background assumptions (unlike Apocalypse Nerd, for example); it's somewhat lumpy but generally moves well and is full of amusing Bagge stuff. Maybe not top-tier Bagge, but pretty close: good, almost current work from a creator who is like no one else. If Bagge seems interesting, this is a decent one to dive into, though Hate is still the core.