Tuesday, April 30, 2024

The Armadillo Prophecy by Zerocalcare

OK: let me start again, from the beginning.

I read one Zerocalcare book a few months back: Forget My Name, which I thought was his breakthrough or biggest book (or maybe just that in the English language), but found some elements of it hard to parse. It seemed like some of what tripped me up was just the way he tells stories, so I thought I might as well go back to his first book and see what I found there.

This is that book: The Armadillo Prophecy was published in 2011 in the author's native Italy, with this 2023 English-language edition translated by Carla Roncalli di Montorio. One minor point: the first section of this book - about a dozen pages - seems to have been added nine years later (so about 2020) as a later prologue, to connect to the author's later work and revisit some of the themes.

Like Forget, it's structured as a constellation of short sections, circling a cluster of central concerns and ideas without directly telling a single coherent story or turning into a single narrative. Also like Forget, it's entirely from within Zero's mind - there are other characters, but he explicitly calls out that he's drawing them in quirky ways (I'll come back to that) which is also a sneaky way of making clear that he's also writing about them entirely as he sees or understands them.

What I mean is: I don't think Zerocalcare's books are about a wider world. They're all about what it feels like to be Zerocalcare, what is going on in his head, how he feels and thinks about things. Other people exist - he's not some kind of solipsist - but we'll never get their viewpoints, and their concerns will never be on the same scale as Zero's.

In fact, the second most important character - here, and, I think, in his work in general - is that armadillo on the cover, the external manifestation of his internal voice. The movie based on this book describes the armadillo as being Zero's "fears and insecurities," but I think it's wider than that - the armadillo is the eternally questioning internal voice, the kind that can turn into something like a separate persona for people who live mostly in their own heads.

I haven't yet said what Armadillo is "about." There was an event that sparked all of the thoughts here - something from the outside world that sent Zero into this internal cascade. And a more conventional book would be "about" that event, that person, somewhat equally about the two of them.

That's not how Armadillo works; I don't think it's how Zero works in general. To be blunt, Armadillo is a book about someone else's death, entirely about what changes that made in Zero's thinking.

Camille was a teenage friend, part of a group of four that hung out all the time. Zero had a huge crush on her, of course - a book like this can't start from anywhere else. And of course he never told her, or did anything about it. And of course she moved away, and he only saw her rarely after that. And of course she died very young, and tragically - the word "anorexia" is mentioned once, and no other details are ever given.

We don't learn about Camille here. We know the young Zero desperately wanted her, in the ways sixteen-year-olds desperately want things. We see that she was pretty, and always there. We probably remember similar crushes from our own youth, and understand. But Camille is just an image - again, other people aren't important here. She isn't even on most of the pages - not even referenced in a majority of the sections, if I wanted to start counting pages. She's not a person, because Zero never actually had a real relationship with her. If I wanted to be cruel, I'd say Zero never tried to know her as a person: he thought that required dating her, and he couldn't work up the courage to do that, so instead he left her as a mysterious, unknowable Other.

So Camille's death is the moment that sparked this book, but the book is more about Zero being neurotic and, maybe, beginning to realize that and (even more of a maybe) thinking that he might want to be slightly less neurotic and more straightforward in his life.

Autobio comics are often about neurotic young men wrapped up in their own heads. Zero has an energetic line and a quick way with patter-y writing that emphasizes that rush-of-thinking aspect of neurosis - Armadillo is fun to read and deeply entertaining. We know this kind of guy, and Zero presents himself well in that tricky balance: clearly not functioning well in society, but not a complete goofball, either.

That energetic line and visual inventiveness also comes out with a lot of secondary characters - one oft-repeated schtick here is the "in order to preserve his privacy, I'll present Character X as <insert random thing>". Zero's parents are each seen just a couple of times, and treated this way - in forms that I gather continue throughout his work, since they're drawn the same way in Forget, and informed some of the structure of Forget. Here it's mostly a joke, but an important joke - it keeps the circumscribed, Zero-focused nature of the whole project central, since he isn't going to accurately depict other people. Again: not the ways they look and not the ways they think.

I  gather from Forget that Zero has become somewhat more outward-focused than he started, which is good - this is awfully insular, awfully wrapped up in the head of one mid-twenties Italian guy, and there's only so much material that can be wrung from one guy's neuroses. (On the other hand, he's already done something like half a dozen GNs, a movie and two animated TV series, so maybe this particular well of neurosis is a cash-cow.)

I like the energy here, I like the self-awareness, I like the strength and vigor of the drawing. I'd like a little more reflection, more of a sense that the rest of the world actually does exist, and that other people have separate, different concerns. But it's a young creator's first project, so all of that is to be expected, and Forget shows that, in a really weird, quirky way, he did start concerning himself with at least his family's history, though he weirdly fictionalized that in ways I'm still not sure how to take.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Eleanor Friedberger

"Portions for Foxes" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song by a woman or a band led by a woman. See the introduction for more.

Here's another song where I have to admit I don't know the background. It's a 2013 song by a singer-songwriter who has had more than a few records, I think a busy career, and is probably still out there, doing something interesting.

A song is a moment, and you can love a moment even if you don't know the whole story.

This is Stare at the Sun by Eleanor Friedberger, a mostly happy song with some depths and darknesses hiding within it. Because the sun is wonderful and warming and brings life to us all, but, as the title implies, you don't want to look directly at it, do you?

‘Cause when I’m with you everything’s treasure
I forget what it’s like to be gone
I’m far from the town in the suburbs of your pleasure
I've been in exile so long

The person she's singing to is the sun, by the way. That's the metaphor. Or maybe the relationship is the sun: you don't want to dwell on it too much, or that will ruin it.

The two of them are separating, maybe - could be for the day, or a tour, or something longer. The singer seems to be worried, somewhere deep inside, that it's not just a "see you at dinner" kind of separation.

If that was goodbye then you must be high
And maybe I'm losing the thread

It's an energetic song with a mostly happy sound and some lurking questions beneath: I love that kind of thing, those songs with depths and ambiguities. This is an excellent one; I hope you like it too.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Reviewing the Mail: Week of April 27, 2024

One book this week: I was ordering some other things from that hegemonic Internet retailer, happened to check my wishlist, and realized the finale of this series was actually published. So now I have it on hand:

Ralph Azham: The Dying Flame is the fourth book of the series - at least as published in English. In the original French, this is a series of twelve album-length bande desinées published in the decade after 2010. The American publisher, Super Genius - which I think is the adult, or maybe Eurocomics, arm of the Papercutz kids-book juggernaut - combined those into three-book omnibuses. The first three are Black Are the Stars, The Land of the Blue Demons, and You Can't Stop a River.

See my posts on the earlier books for more details, but, briefly, this is a secondary-world fantasy series, with a lot of the same tone, concerns, and style as the Dungeon books Trondheim writes with Joann Sfar. Ralph himself was the "Chosen One" - which turned out to be both not really a good thing, and not as singular as it sounded. As usual with Trondheim, it's gotten a lot more complicated over the course of the nine books before this volume - but a real ending is promised here, and I'm interested to see how he wraps it up.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Quote of the Week: Don't Worry, It Works the Other Way, Too!

Scud has a feeling that Maisie is watching him out of the corner of her eye. He waves to her, but she acts like she doesn't see him. In his chagrin, it occurs to him that he's facing an entire lifetime of not understanding women.

 - Rudy Rucker, Million Mile Road Trip, p.395

Friday, April 26, 2024

Million Mile Road Trip by Rudy Rucker

Every writer is unique, of course. But some are quirkier than others, with idiosyncrasies closer to the surface. They're the obviously unique ones.

Even in that company, Rudy Rucker stands out: the creator and pretty much sole acolyte of Transrealist writing, a mode of science fiction in which the point is to "write like yourself, only more so" and incorporate as many elements from your real life into fiction as possible. His work is weirdly specific in at least two distinctive ways. First, a loose-limbed Northern California sense of freedom and possibility, equally influenced by surfing and slackerdom. Second, a deep fascination with math, topology, and computer science - Rucker's college-professor day-job for decades - which means that some of his novels have actual drawings in them to illustrate ideas and the structures of fictional worlds.

On top of that, Rucker delights in the goofy and the weird - one early novel was The Sex Sphere, which is about, well, "a giant ass in Hilbert space." That's the slacker/surfer vibe again, I suppose, but I need to emphasize it, because Rucker is consistently weirder and wilder than you imagine, no matter who "you" are.

His novels are usually fun and amusing - not exactly light, since they often feature potential apocalypses, but definitely askew from normal life and fiction, and not to be taken purely with a straight face (or an unaltered brain). And I see that I've never written about his novels here, despite having read a lot of his stuff and acquiring several projects back in my SFBC days. (I did cover his autobiography, Nested Scrolls, here about a decade ago.)

So today I'm trying to get my arms around Million Mile Road Trip, Rucker's most recent novel, published in 2019. It is deeply Ruckerian, both mathy and slackery, and the central plot is about fighting off an invasion of evil flying saucers from a parallel world - so it's full of elements and ideas that resonate and follow from his earlier books.

Zoe Snapp and Villy Van Antwerpen are graduating high-school seniors in Los Perros, California - sort of going out, tentatively thinking about their futures, a bit overwhelmed by all the possibilities of life. And then two skinny aliens, Yampa and Pinchley, show up, declare that these two are needed to save the world, and offer to modify Villy's giant old station wagon to make a massive road trip across a parallel world. And why not? Villy's kid brother Scud tags along at the last minute, and the five are off.

They travel through a dimensional bridge - an "unny tunnel," in Rucker's typically goofy language - to Mappyworld, a parallel universe where various round planets from our universe are mapped onto flat valleys in a potentially infinite landscape of hexagonal mountains. (Yes, some older readers may notice an unexpected Jack Chalker echo at this detail.) So every few thousand miles, there's a massive mountain range separating another "world," with another batch of weird aliens living there.

There's a lot of incidents, and, as the title implies, their destination world is about two hundred valleys away, making it, yes, a million-mile road trip. (And that's just in one direction!) Along the way, they learn that flying saucers are living beings, and are divided into the good dark-eyed saucers (Scud makes out with one of them) and the evil red-eyed saucers (who try to kill them, and are led by the gigantic evil Groon, bent on conquest of our Earth, of course).

Our heroes learn details of Mappyworld, meet various bizarre creatures, and gather strange powers and devices, such as the pearls that power saucers and their own transforming musical instruments. (Rucker also has the Boomer tropism for rock 'n roll, or at least music, as a liberating mechanism in the world.) There is a big battle in various 4D environments and the grounds of Los Perros High at the climax. And the world, of course, is saved.

Rucker's language is always goofier than I expect - unny tunnels and surfer slang - and this is one of his less-structured, "and then this happened" stories. It's characteristically Ruckerian, but maybe not one of his very best novels, or perhaps I mean not the best choice for a new reader. On the other hand, it's pure Rucker, contemporary in a way that a lot of his books aren't anymore, and full of interesting moments.

I dunno, man. You'll have to decide for yourself, y'know? Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Darwin Carmichael Is Going to Hell by Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan

It's weird how a serialized story turns into something different in collected form. Obviously, it was structured to be read in snippets, day by day, over time. Getting a big clump of it all at once - as much as, in this case, all of it - turns all of those pauses vastly smaller, everything that had to stand for a day or a week or a month into a bare second as the reader turns the page.

I suppose there are examples where it damages the work, where there's a lot of Shocking Reveals and Unfulfilled Cliffhangers and other things that just become tedious when all read together. But the things that come to my mind are all cases where the continuity makes the story work better, where it's easier to keep characters and relationships and world-building in your mind as you go, since it hasn't been (in this case) four and a half years since the beginning.

Not to bury the lede with that meandering: Darwin Carmichael Is Going to Hell was a webcomic, appearing from the beginning of 2009 through mid-2013. It turned into this book in 2014. It was written and drawn by Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan. (I gather Goldstein is the cartoonist, so she did most of the art and maybe more scripting, but there's a style of repeating strip drawn by Jordan, the medieval historian, so it's pretty clear they both did some level of All The Things creating this story.)

It's a contemporary fantasy, of the "everything is true" sub-variety - Darwin is our main character, a mid-twenties guy in a NYC that's also home to a bewildering array of mythological and fantastic creatures. For examples: his landlord is a minotaur, his pet/friend Skittles is a manticore, and three stoner angels have been crashing on his couch for far too long.

Darwin, some years ago (during his late teenage years) in a sequence of events we eventually see, acquired an overwhelming karmic debt, one that he's unlikely to ever be able to overcome in his life. He's, as the title says, doomed to hell, and all of the creatures that can see karmic auras - which is a lot of them, including more "normal people" than you might expect - can see and be at least mildly taken aback by his metaphysical cloud of absolute gloom.

That's the set-up: Darwin Carmichael is mostly a thing of short continuities for the first half, exploring its world and fleshing out Darwin's connections to other people (most importantly Ella, his best friend, whose karma is as good as his is bad, and for pretty much an equally not-her-responsibility reason). There are a couple of large-ish adventures, where Darwin falls in love briefly with a Snow Queen and Ella is transformed into a cat, plus a mythology-related trip to see the Dalai Lama - but, overall, it feels more like an ongoing series than something with a clear through-line.

But Goldstein and Jordan switched gears in the last six months or so of the strip, with a big apocalypse storyline that incorporated nearly every character still alive and active in a literal battle to the death between good and evil. (And let me note here that Darwin, because of that karmic debt, is firmly placed by said supernatural forces on the evil side of the battle.)

It ends well, which most webcomics don't. I mean, most webcomics peter out or just stop suddenly - Darwin both has a real ending and does it well, which is doubly impressive. Even a decade later, this is a great example of telling a story using the rhythms of serialization but making it something that works well as a single story in the end.

And Goldstein's art is great here: fat rounded lines, great faces, crisp colors, cartoony in all the best ways. (Jordan's style is fun and works for the bits she does, too.)

The website is still mostly live, though the comics are down at the moment ("moment" here meaning "since 2022"), and it's old enough that it'll throw a scary "not secure" error in most modern browsers. The book is semi-available from random third-party sellers. Or you can be like me and hope to come across a copy of the book in the wild: it did work in my case, though it took nine years.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

A Matter of Life by Jeffrey Brown

Jeffrey Brown is a prolific, interesting cartoonist (and teacher of cartooning), yet another creator that sits in my head in the category "I need to keep up with their work" until I realize the last book of his I read was in 2015.

I have reasons, or excuses, for that. The most reasonable one is that Brown has been mostly making comics for middle-graders for the past decade-plus - a couple of Star Wars series, Incredible Change-Bots, and their follow-ups - and that I did read a few of those but lost track of them eventually. A lot of cartoonists are mostly making books for middle-schoolers these days: middle-schoolers not only buy books, but actually love them, and there's a whole ecosystem of school visits and book fairs and whatnot to provide income and marketing opportunities and fan contact for those creators.

I found A Matter of Life randomly recently, and read it quickly. It was published in 2013 and - if I'm reading Brown's Wikipedia bibliography correctly - was his most recent book actually aimed at an adult audience. So I might not be as far behind as I thought I was.

This is a memoir comic, like a lot of Brown's work for adults, in the style of Clumsy and the rest of his Aughts work. I've read that he does these stories in sketchbooks - I'm not sure if he just works them out there, and then re-draws them "officially," or if the sketchbook pages are the final work. But Brown's stories in this mode do come off as less polished - or maybe I mean "processed" - than the usual modern memoir comic, a collection of short chapters about moments or ideas rather than a long single story with a point of view and an overarching message.

Brown's autobio work is more about exploration than presentation - this book's subtitle is "An Autobiographical Meditation on Fatherhood and Faith," which covers the ground solidly - he isn't presenting a GN that says "here's this story of my life." Brown instead has a cluster of thoughts and moments, little stories and bigger ones, that circle around something important and interesting. In this case, it's thoughts about the relationships of fathers and sons, primarily Brown to his own minister father and to his then-young son.

The faith piece is less explicit - to tell a story about what you believe, you really need to explain those beliefs, by speaking directly to the reader or something similar. But Brown doesn't work that way, so other than a short intro, this instead is a collection of moments - some when he was younger, and believed in a traditional flavor of Christianity as much as he did believe (however much that was; Brown, again, keeps it vague) and some when he was older and no longer believed. Brown unfortunately does fall back on the usual "It doesn't mean I don't believe in something bigger than myself" vague statement that means exactly nothing - I mean, so do I, because Mt. Everest is bigger than I am and I believe in it, but it's not helpful in defining any specific belief in the supernatural underpinnings of the universe. There's no one in the world who only thinks things smaller than them exist.

Brown's style, I think, works best on interpersonal, daily-life questions. His initial fame came from books about his love life, and what works best in this book are the father-son interactions, in both directions. To really get at what his father believed, and how his relationship with his father shifted after he stopped believing, Brown would have needed to work in a different, more explicit style - to define things rather than just show them.

So this is more about fatherhood than faith, and more about realizing that in-betweenness - that you are both a father and a son - and having new appreciation for both roles. That's plenty for one book, actually, and Brown, as always in this style, tells his story in an organic and grounded way, full of specific moments and thoughts.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Haruki Murakami Manga Stories by Jean-Christophe Deveney and PMGL

Some titles are more obvious than others. This book could have been called anything, but it would have been Haruki Murakami Manga Stories even if it was named something different. So some editor or functionary at Tuttle decided to be obvious, I suppose.

This book is the first in a series adapting the short stories of Haruki Murakami into manga format, exactly as the title implies. A second volume is already out; I'm not sure how many more are planned. This one has four stories, and his ISFDB entry lists thirty-two short stories in total, so there could be as many as eight volumes - more, I suppose, if he continues to write more stories, or the books do longer adaptations.

But I do want to quibble slightly at "manga." It's a project of Tuttle, an American publisher headquartered in rustic Rutland, Vermont. These stories are scripted by Jean-Christophe Deveney, who is French, and drawn by an entity calling itself PMGL, about which I can find very little online. (The back-cover bio implies it is a male human being, but offers no hints to location or the names of other works.) Manga Stories is created in full-color, and reads (at least in this digital edition) from left to right, both on individual pages and between pages. All of that is clearly comics, but I would not say it's manga. I might even argue for bande desinée.

But maybe we're in a world where all of the words for comics are mixing together, and making distinctions among them is no longer useful. That might be annoying, since I like words that mean distinctive, specific things, but it's common and not unexpected.

Anyway, there are four stories here. They are each quite separate, and all solidly Murakamian in their style, tone and concerns: literary stories told quirkily, that start from odd places and don't necessarily resolve in traditional ways.

"Super-Frog Saves Tokyo," originally appeared in after the quake, a book of six thematically-linked stories from 2003, all sparked by the 1995 Kobe earthquake. A middle-aged salaryman is surprised by, yes, a gigantic talking frog, who insists that the two of them must battle an even more gigantic supernatural Worm beneath Tokyo, which will spark a cataclysmic earthquake if not defeated. The story sets up a weird but recognizable hero's journey, and then entirely avoids telling that story.

"Where I'm Likely to Find It," was a 2005 story, published in English translation in The New Yorker almost immediately, and then collected in the English-language collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman the next year. This is a quirky-detective story: the specific quirky detective here chases missing persons, refuses to take any payment, and is looking for something larger, more central, more amorphous. (This is a Murakami story, so it's not exactly a spoiler to say he doesn't find it; Murakami stories are largely about not finding things.) The detective is hired by a woman to find her husband, who disappeared mysteriously between floors of a Tokyo high-rise, returning from calming his mother (who lives a few flights down) to an expected pancake breakfast. The detective spends days roaming the stairs of that high-rise, talking to various odd characters and contemplating the infinite, until, as so often in Murakami, the story resolves itself in a different way off the page.

Birthday Girl seems to have been only published in translation, as a small paperback first in German in 2017 and then in the UK in 2019. A woman tells the story of her twentieth birthday, ten or twenty years later, to a man who is probably the Murakami stand-in for this story. But it's all her story: she worked at a fancy restaurant, on the ground floor of a big building. And, one day, the manager was sick, and unable to take the usual dinner to the restaurant owner, a recluse who lived high up in that building. So this woman took the meal, met the owner, and was granted a wish...and doesn't tell us what the wish was.

And last is "The Seventh Man," a 1996 story (English translation 1998, in Granta), also most prominently from Blind Willow. At some kind of dinner party of middle-aged men, one man tells a story from his childhood, when he was about ten and friendly with a younger boy. That day a massive typhoon came, the two boys went out to explore while the extremely slow-moving eye sat over their coastal town, and then were caught when the storm moved. This man spent much of the rest of his life recovering from what he saw then.

Deveney effectively turns Murakami's prose into comics: these stories have the same feel and frisson as the originals. PMGL, whatever that is when it's at home, draws in a slightly grotesque style, full of details and lines and changes in color (except for "Find It," which is all grey-tones) - I thought that was also very appropriate for Murakami, and worked well. Adaptation is a tricky thing; adapting very distinctive creators even more so. Manga Stories is more purely and centrally Murakamian than I expected - it's a big success at what it set out to do.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Orenda Fink

"Portions for Foxes" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song by a woman or a band led by a woman. See the introduction for more.

Doing a little research for this post, I found out there's a whole history I wasn't aware of - previous band and parallel bands and reunions and all that jazz. It's not a surprise - people have careers and lives, which started before you paid attention and continued after you get distracted by something else - but the details are always more specific and interesting than you expect.

I knew Orenda Fink from one solo record in the mid-Aughts. I'm a big fan of this one song in particular, and still listen to it. But her career is much bigger than that, with several other band names I probably should take the time to investigate, one of these days.

But today, I'm here to talk about High Ground, a swirling, tense song driven by what I think is a mandolin - the second-creepiest mandolin song I know, after Okkervil River's Westfall - and powered by Fink's bright, clear, quiet voice.

Cause when the water rises
They start to look for high ground
Just like me when you come around

I'm pretty sure this is yet another bad-relationship song. The singer is trying to stay away from the man she's singing to - but she also seems to be singing to a storm, something natural and overwhelming. Or maybe she just sees that man like a tsunami or flood or nor'easter: destructive and violent, destroying all before it.

Hey, big man, big wind, don’t blow
Don’t come search for me
I beg of you both

There is a "both." So I like to think there's both a storm coming and this man, at the same time, and the singer is pleading with both of them to stay away. The song is in that moment before the storm hits, before the man finds her, when there's still room for words, for pleading. Still time to look for high ground to weather the storm.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Quote of the Week, Supplemental: We've All Known Drivers Like That

Professor McFwain stepped on the accelerator, and the Hindustan-eight sort of threw itself forward - the car has a desperate way of moving, as though it was hurling itself off a cliff.

Professor McFwain evidently enjoyed driving, even though the car shuddered as though it was terrified, lurched, hesitated, and then lurched forward again. I wasn't sure if it was the Hindustan-eight or the way Professor McFwain drove - maybe a little of each.

 - Daniel Pinkwater, Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario, p. 214 in 4 Fantastic Novels

Quote of the Week: The Job Hasn't Changed

Should you rest upon a bench, and your tired eyes close, depend upon it the policeman would rouse you and gruffly order you to 'move on.' You may rest on the bench, and benches are few and far between; but if rest means sleep, on you must go, dragging your tired body through the endless streets. Should you, in desperate slyness, seek some forlorn alley or dark passageway and lie down, the omnipresent policeman will rout you out just the same. It is his business to rout you out. It is a law of the powers that be that you shall be routed out.

 - Jack London, The People of the Abyss (p.47 in Library of America Novels & Social Writings)

Friday, April 19, 2024

Lone Wolf and Cub, Vol. 1: The Assassin's Road by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima

I read this whole series once, when everyone else did, starting in 2000 when this translation was originally published in the US. (I should note here that this volume - I think the whole series - was translated by Dana Lewis.)

But that's more than twenty years ago now, and I thought something like, "You know, maybe a twenty-eight volume series of three-hundred-page books about a guy chopping off heads, accompanied by his never-aging toddler son, set three hundred and fifty years ago in Japan, would be a fun reading project for 2024." So here I am, at the beginning of one of the acknowledged masterpieces of Japanese comics, and of world comics in general.

I probably won't have a lot to say. This series is remarkably resistant to commentary: it is what it is, and it is intensely itself. I gather it is the pinnacle of a whole style or genre of comics, one which was already mostly of historical interest in Japan when the US translation appeared - this is work from the early 1970s, back at the other end of my life, fifty years ago.

So what can I say about Lone Wolf and Cub, Vol. 1: The Assassin's Road? It was not the first collaboration between Kazuo Koike (writer) and Goseki Kojima (artist), but it was their longest, most fruitful project together. That's how canonical works work: they set the tone and the standard, and everything else is compared to them, generally as criticism.

This book contains nine stories, mostly around thirty pages long. It begins with our main characters already in their wandering life; we don't get the explanation until deep into this volume. But we do learn, eventually, that Ogami Ittō was once the shogun's executioner, one of the three main powers of the state, and that the head of the Yagyu ninja clan - the shogun's secret police, basically, another one of those three powers - betrayed him, framed him for treason, and set him up for death. Of course, Ittō instead fought his way free, with his infant son, and now wanders Japan as an assassin for hire.

As I recall, most of the stories are random jobs, like any series about a protagonist who wanders to do things. The central conflict comes back, again and again, and is concluded in the last volume - but that's about eight thousand pages in the future at this point. That's certainly the pattern here: one or two backstory tales, mostly wandering.

All of it is deeply atmospheric, both visually - in that slow-paced way that was such a shock to American audiences when we first saw it - and thematically, as Koike sets his story completely within the mindset of the people of the time. There is no winking, no modern viewpoint, no frame story: this is Ittō's world entirely, and all of the moral choices and societal attitudes are his, all from his point of view.

And he is declaredly on the road to hell, of his own will, to find his vengeance and die.

American comics readers now live in a world with many more options; we've all seen a lot of manga by now. Lone Wolf and Cub may not be as different as it was in 2000, not as stark a contrast - but I think it is still so much its own thing, so well-defined and fully-realized, that is is still as powerful and compelling. 

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario by Daniel Pinkwater

I've written about Daniel Pinkwater a lot here: see Borgel for my most recent attempt, or just plumb the archives for more. The short version: he's been writing quirky, smart books, ostensibly for an audience of Young Adult or Middle Grade readers, for about fifty years at this point. If you grew up during that period, I hope you found Pinkwater books at the time: if you're reading my blog now, you're probably exactly the right kind of reader for his work.

If you didn't grow up reading Pinkwater, well, are you really sure you're done growing up? There's still time.

I just re-read Pinkwater's 1979 novel Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario, for the first time in probably twenty years. It's currently available in the omnibus 4 Fantastic Novels, alongside three other, well, fantastic books by Pinkwater.

This is the one in which young Eugene Winkleman is living with his Uncle Mel for the summer while his parents take an all-expenses-paid vacation to Europe that they won:

The second prize was a home videotape machine. I would have liked it better if they had won that, because I could have started a collection of science-fiction movies. But they won the trip, and off they went[.]

But then Uncle Mel has to go to Rochester, New York for work - he works on horrible-sounding vending machines that dispense things that are almost entirely unlike food - and brings Eugene with him for those two weeks.

Eugene is just a kid, so at first he doesn't have much to do in downtown Rochester while Mel is doing his training. He goes to the library and reads a bit, trying to avoid the oppressive summer heat. He's worried that he's going to be pretty bored, and not find any other kids to hang out with.

He doesn't find any other kids, but he's not bored.

Eugene sees a documentary and then reads a book, both about Professor Ambrose McFwain, head of a local scientific institute that searches for strange monsters - such as the monster of the title, supposedly resident in the local Great Lake. Eugene, somewhat bored, reaches out to the professor, and is hired as a research assistant for the next two weeks - which McFwain promises will be an exciting time in monster-hunting.

As usual, the Pinkwaterian plot gets more complicated and silly from there, bringing in the eccentric billionaire Colonel Ken Krenwinkle, who sells used cars one day a year and hunts rare and interesting cars whenever he can. Eventually, they're all out on Lake Ontario, at night, looking for the mysterious monster.

They find something, of course. It's not what they expect. It's not what you the reader expects, either. I won't say more than that. There is a big silly ending, as there must be, and it all works out pretty well for everyone involved. 

As always, with Pinkwater, the point is to explore a big, weird world, full of quirky people and ideas - a world that is both weirder and stranger than ours but paradoxically more understandable and friendlier. A world where lakes will obviously have monsters in them, where billionaires do oddball things, and where multiple overlapping businesses can operate out of the basement of a factory making suits for fat men. If you ever wished you lived in a world like that, you are a born Pinkwater reader.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Our Encounters With Evil by Mike Mignola and Warwick Johnson-Cadwell

This one is the middle, so of course I got to it last.

There seems to be a recent omnibus of the Mignola/Johnson-Cadwell books under almost exactly the same title, which will be somewhat confusing, but what I just read was the original 2019 book Our Encounters with Evil, the second book of the adventures of the intrepid Victorian-era vampire hunters Professor J.T. Meinhardt and Mr. Knox.

Meinhardt and Knox first appeared in Mr. Higgins Comes Home, battling one specific vampire, and then later appeared in Falconspeare, mostly listening to the vampire-fighting tales of the title character of that book. This time, we get to see them in multiple bits of action - Encounters includes several stories of monster-hunting, most of them also including their compatriot Ms. Mary Van Sloan.

Mike Mignola created these characters originally, and wrote Mr. Higgins, but the follow-up books are all Johnson-Cadwell, under only a Mignola cover. (So I wonder if Johnson-Cadwell also somewhat rewrote or adapted the first book, since they all have the same tone.) This is mostly serious monster-hunting, but not quite fully serious monster hunting; there's a background assumption or tone that something is faintly off, or the whole exercise is just a bit silly, or that we've all seen this so many times before that we know exactly how it will happen.

Not funny. Nowhere near a parody. But aware of itself as a genre exercise, just a bit, mostly in tone.

Since core Mignola tends to be deeply serious - with the usual comic-book-people-punching-each-other kinds of quippy humor to lighten it up - that makes these books substantially different in tone, like a nice cup of sorbet after a big meal.

I could talk about the separate stories, but what's the point? This is the middle. If light, not-quite-serious monster-fighting sounds appealing, just take a look at Mr. Higgins. Assuming you enjoy that, you'll be here soon enough: they're all short books. Johnson-Cadwell has an energetic line, just a couple of clicks towards cartoony, in a vaguely European-looking style - like some BD series you've heard of vaguely but never quite tracked down. And otherwise it's vaguely in the Mignola canon: vampires and odder beasts rampaging through the landscapes of "the Balkans," battled by adventurers in sensible garb and a giant pile of mostly-lethal apparatus.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The People of the Abyss by Jack London

Jack London was a socialist, of course. Casual readers can forget that - and his books often phrase things in ways that will tend to make modern readers miss his expected ends - but several of his major works only make sense in that context.

This is one of them: The People of the Abyss, a 1903 non-fiction book based on a few months of living in London, mostly the worst sections of the East End, and investigating the lives of the urban poor. London's conclusion basically says that the rich should have their fortunes seized and those peers put to work doing something productive, to raise the living conditions of these poor people. But he phrases it in a 1903 way, somewhat roundabout as well, presumably so as not to overly shock the audiences of his day, and so the sharpness of the solution can be easy to miss.

But that's the whole point of the book. London spent months living like the poorest of the poor, waiting in line for workhouses, talking to the aged and destitute, living in a single room in the worst neighborhood of Whitechapel and wearing the clothes of the locals.  All of that so he can describe it, mostly to an American audience, for a country where he assumes poverty is not this horrible or grinding because of greater opportunities and more empty land. Whether that was actually true at the time, or just London's idyllic dream, is a question for a historian. I suspect parts of some American cities were at least as bad as this - and some Black people in the US had it even worse.

(Minor consumer note: I read this in the Library of America Novels and Social Writings volume, which seems to be currently out of print. Since London is well out of copyright, there are a lot of editions, and their texts might not be equally authoritative. It's worth seeking out a good edition from a real publisher for OOP material. I recommend LoA strongly for any writer they've published.)

Abyss is a short book with a lot of detail - twenty-seven chapters, each with a separate focus and aim, all reported directly by London, who came as close to actually living this life as any outsider with an escape hatch possibly could.

It's a horrible, grinding, thankless life. I suspect that even the lives of the relatively stable working class, those two or three steps up from London's poorest of the poor, would come across as unbearably arduous and unpleasant to us today, but these people are truly in hell: cast out, forgotten, left to die as quickly and easily as possible. This is not a pleasant read, but London is mostly a crisp, quickly readable, essentially modern writer. He does descend a bit into pseudo-Victorian circumlocutions when he's giving his policy prescriptions, as I noted up top - but he's mostly in muscular, straightforward mode here, as he was for most of his career.

If I were King of the World, every libertarian and techbro would be forced to read People of the Abyss - no, forced to live like those 1902 Londoners for six months or so, long enough to give them a real fear of death and, I hope, finally convince them that other people are real and that even they can be brought low.

I'm not, of course. But I do like to dream.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Portions for Foxes: The Ettes

"Portions for Foxes" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song by a woman or a band led by a woman. See the introduction for more.

I have two playlists that are all-women, with my usual self-consciously ironic names. I don't want to claim all of music falls into these two buckets, but I find it amusing to divide things into two. So I have Quiet Girly Music and Girls Who Rock.

Today I have a band very much on the Girls Who Rock side, one of the staples of that playlist. These are The Ettes, and the song is Dead and Gone.

The Ettes were masters of short, muscular songs that got in and back out quickly. The longest song I have of theirs is barely three and a half minutes long, and they have a lot of great numbers - this one, Dirty, Blood Red Blood, No More Surprises, Gimmie, I Can't Be True, It Ain't You - that finish up in less than two and a half.

They're not quite punk; it's more of an updated '60s garage-band sound, big anthems in a small space from a tight three-piece band. Singer Lindsay "Coco" Hames - all three members have short one-word nicknames; the others are Jem and Poni - sings with ferocity, especially in this song.

And when you're down
I won't drag you up
I do believe
I've had enough

The first verse also has a great stop-start rhythm, with the guitar riff diving in, loudly, and then stopping - over and over, before the whole song pics up momentum and charges forward.

There's something angry about this song, but it's a cold anger, something that happened a while ago. The voice in the song is going to get what she wants, eventually - we know that. Even if we don't know what that is, or how it will happen.

And when you sleep
Don't close your eyes
That's when you'll get
Your big surprise

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/13/24

Three books arrived this week - two of them in the mail, through the usual publicity channels, and one from the library. I'll take them in that order.

The Runes of Engagement is a novel by Dave Klecha and Tobias S. Buckell, apparently an expansion of their story of the same name in the anthology Operation Arcana. It's military fantasy, of the "modern soldiers battle orcs" style - there was a popular series about a battle group (in an APC, I want to say?) around twenty years ago that this reminds me of, but I never read those books and now can't remember the author. Well, anyway: grunts fighting dragons. That kind of thing. Looks like this one leans into the dark-humor side of it, rather than staying a straight adventure, which sounds like fun.

Runes will be published June 18th in trade paperback and the usual arrangements of electrons by Tachyon Publications.

Also from Tachyon, but already published - since I have a finished paperback in my hands - is Samantha Mills's debut novel The Wings Upon Her Back. Mills won the Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon awards last year for her story "Rabbit Test." (And I now have to admit that I haven't read it, since I read essentially no short fiction these days, and keep thinking I should get back into it.) This is a fantasy novel, possibly with steampunky elements - the acolytes of the Mecha God have copper wings that it's implied actually work - about a middle-aged heroine who devoted her life to a cause and a deity that might not be as admirable as she originally thought, and from whose service she is now irrevocably severed.

And that library book - the last from the batch I requested about three weeks ago - is Lunar New Year Love Story, a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang (creator of Boxers & Saints, among other things) and LeUyen Pham (who has been a celebrated illustrator of books for young readers for a couple of decades - I'm sure I've seen her work, since that heavily overlaps my kids' growing-up years, but I'm not sure of specifics - including a bunch of comics-formatted things mostly done with Shannon Hale). I'm not sure if this book is officially adult or YA - it might depend on whether there are any curses or on-page sex in it - but it's about a young woman, Val, who may be under a family curse to be unlucky in love and who may have a way to break that curse.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Quote of the Week: You Know He's a King Because He Hasn't Got Shit All Over Him

Suddenly, out of the toilet bowl, there reared up a human arm. It was clad in some white, diaphanous fabric, almost certainly samite, and in its long, slim hand it held a shiny letter-opener in the shape of a knightly sword. Three times it brandished the letter-opener, slow and solemn, as the hand dryer finished its cycle and fell silent.

"Oh come on," Maurice pleaded, but it was no good. The hand was still there.

 - Tom Holt, When It's a Jar, pp.164

Friday, April 12, 2024

This Must Be the Place by Michael Sweater

This book is one of the few records that a strip called Please Keep Warm ever existed. Well, there are launch announcements and excerpts elsewhere, but the actual GoComics strip has fallen into the memory hole, never to be seen again.

The strip launched in February of 2017; this book came out in the summer of 2017. When did the strip end? I have no idea. So this is probably the beginning, but it's unclear how much more more might be lurking in creator Michael Sweater's files, if anything. So This Must Be the Place declares itself to be A "Please Keep Warm" collection, but my suspicions are that it's the only one.

Anyway: This Must Be the Place starts with a five-page page-formatted comic - the bit excerpted in Vice - and then turns into a four-tier layout, with each tier (I think) an individual strip, for about eighty pages, and then has a few more page-formatted short stories at the end. (My assumption is that those are from anthologies, either during or after the life of the strip.) The whole thing runs 108 pages of comics, and it's all consistent and coherent - all the same kind of thing. (That's not always the case with new strips; creators often write their way into things and experiment, particularly if they're shifting formats like Warm does.)

Four people live in a house together: the book starts out by centering Clover, who is a kid of unspecified years - probably elementary school, maybe even younger. She lives with her Uncle Stan, who is trying to write a novel; Catman, who I think has some sort of office job and is low-key the Krameresque goofball of the group; and Flower, who doesn't seem to have any sort of central deal other than the fact that her sleeves are longer than her arms. Stan, Catman, and Flower all seem to be mid-20s, pseudo-slackers, the kind of characters who would probably be stoners if this strip appeared somewhere even slightly more counterculture than GoComics. Clover is mostly the center, and has the typical strip-comic kid's random enthusiasms, energy, and big body language while her enthusiasms (death metal, skateboarding) are more "adult" coded.

It comes off as a slightly "alternative" take on a standard family comic strip - found family rather than nuclear, all that jazz - and the humor oscillates between those two poles. At it's best, it finds a sweet spot in the middle, as with Clover's death metal obsession - she loves it like a kid would, but also makes a demo and worries about promo like an professional. Each of the other characters has similar quirks that I'm leaving out here, including several members of the secondary cast who don't live in this house.

It's mostly "nice" with eruptions of "cool," I guess - it might not have run that long because it is trying to be both of those things regularly, and the two audiences might not be hugely compatible. But Please Keep Warm makes its own consistent vibe, has fun with the way it tells stories, features amusing characters, and does pretty much what it sets out to do. That is all just fine with me.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Totem by Laura Pérez

Some graphic novels make connections mostly in words, while others traffic primarily in images.

Totem is a book of images; it has several narrative strands, only about half of which have words at all. So I suspect I'll here somewhat echo the book's descriptive copy, mentioning different strands of images, and maybe find ways to tie them together. But there's no clear story that can be told in words here: this is a book of mood and juxtaposition. It's a book of questions, not answers: it doesn't intend to answer anything.

The clearest thread follows two women, probably a couple. They're traveling across Arizona, on a vacation or a quest - traveling, seeing things, looking for something vague or unspecified. But we begin with one of them, the redhead, some time later, after the dark-haired woman is gone - we initially don't know why or how.

We suspect it's not good, since the redhead is reminded of the brunette by hearing a news report of a dead woman: an architect, Yukio Kitaro - one of the few names in the book - who we later see in another, wordless thread, brooding by a window and staring out into what we assume is wilderness.

Another thread of the story follows the redhead's grandmother Carmen, long ago, when as a girl she went with her own father to see a local oracle, to hear omens from the spirits of the dead.

Yet another wordless thread has a group of girls - one may be the brunette as a child, or Carmen, or maybe neither of them - witnessing a strange group of lights in the sky, after which one of them also communes with the dead.

This is not the kind of book where threads come together. They sit separately, commenting on each other or providing different perspectives on similar things. What are those things? Creator Laura Pérez isn't reductive; Totem is not a book with A Message. It's about communion with spirits, of the dead or otherwise, I suppose, about the ways one can be connected with other people and with "the world," in a deep central sense. There's no specific tradition to that spirituality I can discern, no dogma that would explain it.

This is a world strange and overwhelming and mysterious, where strange things happen for unexplained reasons, and the voices of the dead can sometimes guide us through. Pérez draws that world, in soft blacks for the threads set in the past and quiet, mostly subdued desert colors for the modern day. I found her eyes particularly compelling: dark inky orbs starting out at the reader or diverting to the side, full of mystery and unknowable, just like real people.

This is a book to think about, a book to feel, a book to stare at the pictures and think. It will not tell you what to think: if you're looking for that you'll need to go somewhere else. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

When It's a Jar by Tom Holt

This may be part of a series. But, if it is, the series through-line seems to be the use of doughnuts as dimensional portals, and maybe some mostly-background fictional organizations. So it's not much of a series: that's what I'm saying. I didn't really notice any obvious hooks or references. I think we can all just ignore it if we want to.

When It's a Jar is a 2013 humorous fantasy novel by Tom Holt, I believe his thirty-second novel under his own name and his second book (after Doughnut, which I just alluded to) that year. Holt has also had a second career as the darker fantasy writer K.J. Parker for about twenty-five years, and has written some random other things, too (though mostly near the beginning of his career, back in the 1980s).

So he is prolific in general, and has done a lot of books like this one specifically. Well, "like" this one in that they're light adventure with a generally humorous tone in the narrative, and they have elements of mythology being real, in one way or another, as their fantasy elements. That's a pretty broad "like."

I've read a couple of Holt books, long ago, and some scattered Parker books as well. But I am nothing like an expert. I realized it had been a long time since I read "Holt," and that I should try him again since a) I'm fond of short, light books these days and 2) I've really liked the Parker stuff I have read these last couple of decades.

And this was amusing and entirely pleasant - enough that I want to find the other books about doughnuts, or maybe just random Holt, sometime soon. There might be some element of the "British phrases help sell humorous SFF to Americans" engine working here - people like me who have read a lot of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett are prone to think phrases like "luck's not a wheelbarrow; you don't want to push it" are interesting and quirky rather than (as Brits I suppose might) some dull thing Uncle Rupert says every damn day.

This is a multiple-parallel-universes book, though that's not clear for a while. The main character is Maurice, the typical completely normal, deeply boring protagonist of a humorous fantasy novel: he gets dropped into the soup when a dragon appears in his bedroom one night and he accidentally kills it with a bread knife. Of course, even before that he met three women who the reader should realize are The Fates on the London Underground, to clue us in that his life will not be normal going forward.

Maurice is being slotted into a Hero's Journey, complete with his True Love Stephanie stolen away from him and a Quest to get her (not really "back," since they were just friends from childhood) and do other, not entirely specified, heroic deeds. Meanwhile, he's lost his random horrible office job and found a new job at a deeply weird company, where he moves boxes around in a sub-basement. And there's an obnoxious man, Max, who seems to be trapped in some other-dimensional space, who keeps bugging Maurice through various communications media to first retrieve Max and then get on with his obvious heroic destiny.

Maurice, though, is that typically mostly-ineffectual, self-conscious, not particularly good at anything humorous-fantasy protagonist. Killing the dragon - actually a hydra; not nearly as violent or dangerous - was a fluke at best, and he's deeply confused about what's happening to him, what he's supposed to do, and possibly even which universe he's in.

But he is starting to think that he's in the wrong universe.

Eventually, of course, Maurice does retrieve Max - which doesn't really help anything much - and learns more about the multiverse, which is also mostly confusing. And, even later, there is a happy ending, because that's why we read light adventure novels.

I'd have liked more of Maurice's relationship with Stephanie (though she wants to be called Steve now), his supposed True Love. She's a more interesting, vibrant character than Maurice to begin with, but isn't given much to do, and we never get her point of view on their potential relationship. If I were complaining about this book, I'd point out that she's treated as a reward that he will get if he successfully navigates the plot complications, rather than as a person with preferences and motivations.

But the point of a book like this is to follow a guy who isn't quite as much of a sad sack as you initially fear, through amusing moments and humorous situations, with a sprightly tone and fun narrative asides, to his eventual triumph. And When It's a Jar delivers on all of those fronts; I read it more quickly than I expected and, as I said, want to find other things in the same vein from the author. I have to count all that as a big success, so if you're looking for a book anything like this, Holt has a long shelf-full of them to try out.

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Black Hammer: Visions, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire's friends

My standard complaint about the Black Hammer comics is that they're mostly static, locked into an initial premise that wasn't all that exciting to begin with. I suppose that's in distinction to "real" superhero comics, which rely on the façade of change - someone is always dying, someone's costume is always changing, someone is always making a heel-face turn, and worlds are inevitably always living and dying so that nothing will ever be the same - but it's not self-reflective enough to count as irony.

But some kinds of stories aren't supposed to change anything - the whole point is that they don't, and can't, change the things we already know. Jam comics by entirely different creators tend to fall into that bucket: they're sometimes "real" and sometimes not, but even if they're canonical, they don't push the canon in any direction.

Black Hammer: Visions, Vol. 1 is a book like that - it collects four of the eight issues of the title series, each one of which was a separate adventure, by an entirely different team, set in the Black Hammer-verse. It's all sidebar, all "I want to do this story" by people who will do only one Black Hammer story and this is it. So it's self-indulgent in a somewhat different, more inclusive way than the main series.

Since the four issues here are entirely separate - and half of them have no credits within the stories themselves, making me wonder what comics editors do with their time if they can't handle the most basic parts of their jobs - I'll treat them each in turn.

Issue 1 has a story, "Transfer Student," written by comedian Patton Oswalt and drawn by Dean Kotz, which is supposedly about Golden Gail but really is a light retelling of Dan Clowes's Ghost World - I'm 99% sure Oswalt knew it was a comic first, and not just a movie - in the context of the pocket universe. This is pleasant and well-told and has decent emotional depth, but... We the readers know that the Enid character can never get out of this town: there's nowhere else to go. She can't go to college, find new friends, and have a different world to fit into. She is stuck in small-town hell, in the background of someone else's depressive superhero story.

Oddly, the narrative doesn't seem to know this. And that knowledge makes the reading of this story a substantially different experience than I think Oswalt wanted: this is a dark, depressing story with bone-deep irony, saying one thing and meaning the exact opposite.

The second issue sees Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins bring us "The Cabin of Horrors!", a Madame Dragonfly-hosted horror tale. It features what could have been the sensational character find of 1996, Kid Dragonfly, and a nasty serial killer getting his comeuppance. This one feels the most like an actual random issue that could have been part of a larger comics line at the time - well, more like a Secret Origins retelling, cleaning things up maybe a decade later, but still in the same vein.

It's a perfectly acceptable horror/superhero comics story, entirely professional and hitting all of its marks.

In the third installment, Chip Zdarsky writes and Johnnie Christmas draws "Uncle Slam," the obligatory "I'm too old for this shit" story. The person too old for the shit is of course Abraham Slam; that's been his main character note for the entire series. Here, he's sixtyish, retired, running a gym and dating a woman who I think is meant to be a little younger than him but looks childlike (much smaller, very thin, drawn with a young face). But of course a new, more violent hero "takes his name" and he Has To Stand Up for Punching Evil the Right Way (Without So Much Death), which goes about as well as it ever does. He does not die, since he's a superhero-comics protagonist, but other people do, and he loses a lot. The ending tried to move away from And It Is Sad, and would have been OK if this were a standalone story, but we know Abe gets back into the costume like five more times after this point, so it's mostly pointless.

And in the last of these stories, Mariko Tamaki (of all people!) tells a story with Diego Olortegui art that I don't think has a title. It's a fun bit of metafiction, with our core heroes seen in multiple universes, as the viewers of and characters in and actors behind a popular TV show, with different relationships and interactions on each level. It is amusing, a fun exercise in moving the chess pieces around in unexpected but pleasant ways, but it doesn't really turn into a specific story - it's just a sequence of riffs on these characters and their interactions.

On the other hand, that's the most successful and interesting thing in the book, so I can overlook the not-going-anywhere aspects.

So: all in all, it's amusing and is pretty much what you would expect - random quirky takes on these characters and situations by other people, who each get to have one good idea for this setting and then go back to their real careers.

Monday, April 08, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Dragonette

"Portions for Foxes" is a series of weekly posts, each about one song by a woman or a band led by a woman. See the introduction for more.

I love metaphors: that should be clear by now. This week's song is a great one, complicated like all the best metaphors are.

It's about sex and relationships - about sex as a metaphor for the relationship, about how we talk about sex and relationships, about how happiness spreads and makes both sex and relationships better. It's a bright, bouncy, old-fashioned sounding song from a band that was pretty up-to-the-moment.

It's Get Lucky by Dragonette, a wonderful slice of pop goodness from 2006. Dragonette was mostly a band with a modern dance/electronica sound, but this is more of a retro song, with a semi-Tin Pan Alley sound.

I like my head on your shoulder
I like the way you smile, the way you smile ooh-hoo
And we both think the weather's getting better
So let's get lucky, let's go all the way

I don't want to belabor the metaphor - there's a lot of references to weather (wet and cloudy, fog, a storm that "might be a quickie") and the chorus is about "going all the way." But it's going all the way as the metaphor - that's the wink-wink part of it, and what it stands for is longer-term, the kind of relationship that can make it through any kind of weather, for now and into the future.

Martina Sorbara - then-frontwoman, now the whole of Dragonette - sings it all with a smile in her voice, though some light distortion to make it sound old-fashioned and/or electronic. It's lovely and bouncy and happy, the kind of song that always makes your day just that little bit better.

Sunday, April 07, 2024

Books Read: March 2024

As always, this is an index more than anything else, and not even a useful index until later, when the posts go live and I add links. For now, here's what I recently read:

Salva Rubio & Efa, Monet: Itinerant of Light (digital, 3/2)

Jeff Lemire, et. al., Black Hammer: Visions, Vol. 1 (digital, 3/3)

Tom Holt, When It's a Jar (3/3)

Laura Pérez, Totem (digital, 3/9)

Michael Sweater, This Must Be the Place: A Please Keep Warm Collection (digital, 3/10)

Jack London, The People of the Abyss (in Novels & Social Writings, 3/10)

Mike Mignola and Warwick Johnson-Cadwell, Our Encounters with Evil (digital, 3/16)

Daniel Pinkwater, Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario (in 4 Fantastic Novels, 3/16)

Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub, Vol. 1: The Assassin's Road (digital, 3/17)

Jean-Christophe Deveney and PGML, Haruki Murakami: Manga Stories (digital, 3/18)

Jeffrey Brown, A Matter of Life (3/23)

Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan, Darwin Carmichael Is Going to Hell (3/24)

Zerocalcare, The Armadillo Prophecy (digital, 3/30)

Rudy Rucker, Million Mile Road Trip (3/30)

Jeff Smith, Thorn (3/31)

There will be more books next month.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/6/2024

I got four books from the library this week, all things I requested and then picked up when they came in. Here's what they were:

Murakami T is a book of essays by Hauki Murkami about his favorite T-shirts, accompanied by photos of those shirts. It is a completely bizarre idea, and I love that about it. I would have been thrilled to be in the editorial meeting where someone proposed it, just to hear if other editors jumped in with "Well, Morrison has a bunch of cool scarves - can that be next?" or "What about DeLillo's favorite pieces of broken machinery?" (Note: this is probably meanly inaccurate, since the essays first appeared as a series in a Japanese magazine. But still!) It is a book I would have a hard time spending money on, but am very happy to read for free.

Roaming is the new (relatively; it's about six months old) graphic novel by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki, renowned for Skim and This One Summer and possibly other books in between that I missed, since I realize those two are a decade old now. It's another YAish story - the flap copy calls it "a deft foray into adult fiction," but I'm not sure a story about nineteen-year-olds unsure about their lives is all that different from one about fifteen-year-olds unsure of their lives - about a trip to NYC by a group of young Torontonians, possibly lightly based on the creators, in 2009 at the age of nineteen.

The Divided Earth is the third - and maybe final? - book in Faith Erin Hicks' "Nameless City" series. It came out in 2018; I somehow missed it then and only realized that now when I saw Hicks had a new book out. The first two books in the series are The Nameless City itself, and then The Stone Heart.

And then there's Amulet, Book Nine: Waverider, the end of the long-running and best-selling YA fantasy graphic novel series by Kazu Kibuishi. The first Amulet book, Stonekeeper, came out about fifteen years ago, so I feel sorry for anyone who was a middle-grader then and thought they'd see the end of the series before they got out of grad school.

Saturday, April 06, 2024

Quote of the Week: A Sound Commercial Basis

The waiter seemed a little offended about the flowers of the Pyrenees, so I overtipped him. That made him happy. It felt comfortable to be in a country where it is so simple to make people happy. You can never tell whether a Spanish waiter will thank you. Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France. It is the simplest country to live in. No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He appreciated my valuable qualities. He would be glad to see me back. I would dine there again some time and he would be glad to see me, and would want me at his table. It would be a sincere liking because it would have a sound basis. I was back in France.

 - Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, p.237

Friday, April 05, 2024

Monet: Itinerant of Light by Salva Rubio & Efa

There are people who can keep all of the Impressionists straight - who can even say which of those famous 19th century French painters are really Impressionists and which aren't. They can quickly and easily explain the differences between Manet and Monet, have strong opinions on Renoir and Degas, and their minds contain at all times an accurate timeline of the major exhibitions.

I am not not one of them. I know I've seen Monet's paintings here and there, and can nod appreciatively at them, but if you showed me a big sheaf of unlabeled Impressionist paintings and asked me to match them with painters, I can confidently say I would attribute most of them wrongly in defiance of all laws of probability.

So I come to Monet: Itinerant of Light, a 2017 graphic novel written by Salva Rubio, painted by (Ricard) Efa, and translated by Montana Kane, with the attitude of a student or a dilettante. I will not be able to tell you if Rubio - a historian by training - got the facts and dates right, though I assume he did and his notes tend to back that up. I will not be able to give any deep explication to the many times Efa references or mirrors a famous painting - by Monet, or by others - as a panel or full page in this book, though there's about a dozen pages of notes and images in the back of this book pointing out many of those.

I'm pretty sure this is definitive and true, visually as well as factually. Efa does the book in what I think are full paints, and his pages are gorgeous, full of color and energy and of course delighting in the play of light where appropriate. But I do have to assume all of that.

It's organized as a fairly standard biography, starting with an aged Monet getting a cataract operation and then flashing back, through his memory, to tell the vast bulk of the story in normal sequence, starting with Monet as a young teen first starting to paint. The Impressionists were upstarts and rebels, which means a lot of the story is about poverty and strife, as Monet spent years painting things that made only a little money and got only scorn from the critics.

We all love that story, since we're reading it a century later, and we can be on the side of the eventual later critical consensus without any effort. The fact that it's a true story makes it even better, of course.

Monet is gorgeous and interesting and I have to assume true. It is best, I think, as an introduction, and a graphic novel is, in my opinion, the very best format for a biography of a visual artist, since it can show what the work looks like in a natural, organic way. I hope some of it will stick, and I will be slightly better at Impressionist-spotting going forward, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Thursday, April 04, 2024

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I'm not sure if it was just my choice of courses, or a trend in literary favor, but I basically didn't read any Hemingway as a student, even though I got an English degree from Vassar in 1990. (I did tend to gravitate to the 19th century and the British, though, and the English department had no distribution requirements at the time, so each student could build their own version of the canon idiosyncratically.)

What I mean is: I think I got A Moveable Feast as a "here's what it was like living in those days" book - very clearly not a "read this as a Major Important Novel" book - but none of the stories and none of the major novels.

(Hemingway isn't the only one: I read Moby-Dick the spring of my senior year, entirely on my own, since I realized at that point it would never be assigned reading, and I might as well get to it while I was still in fighting trim for books like that.)

Of course, we all have holes in our reading: no one can read everything. No one can even read all the things they want to read, which is a vastly smaller universe. And I didn't have a burning desire to read Hemingway for a long time - the mental image I've mostly had is of him as an old man, grumpy and self-indulgent, a caricature of toxic manhood if ever there was one.

But one weird thing about getting older is that I find it's easier to see creators at different points in their lives - that parallax of my own life making it clearer that this is a young man's book and that is from the older version.

And so, as we're coming up on a hundred years later, I've been vaguely interested in Young Hemingway, the guy who was a reporter, ran off to The Great War, and then decided to make himself A Great Writer. That's why I read The Sun Also Rises, his first novel, originally published in 1926, soon after a couple of story collections started to make his name.

Sun is mildly autobiographical, all of the critics agree - or, rather, that it started that way and shifted as Hemingway wrote it. Jake Barnes, the narrator, is a reporter (check) in Paris (check) who was wounded in WW I (check). But Hemingway makes Barnes mostly an observer to events, and my sense is that Hemingway was more involved - yes, writers always take notes and re-use things they see, but I think Hemingway shifted a lot of "something like this happened to me" over to other characters in the process of fictionalizing it.

Maybe, what I'm trying to say - in the crudest possible way - is that The Sun Also Rises is Hemingway asking the literary question "What if I'd gotten my dick shot off in the war, so I couldn't have the complicated affairs I do have? What would that be like?"

Jake Barnes is perhaps the prototype of the Guy Who Can't Get the Girl, because of that wound which is referenced a lot but never quite explained. (Because no book in 1926 could bluntly say "his  war wound left him permanently impotent.") Because he can't have her, his pursuit of Lady Brett Ashley is purer and his relationship with her less conflicted. He can be her good friend because they both know he's no competition.

And there's a lot of competition.

Brett is a mess in multiple ways, but the attractive kind of mess - a woman old enough to know what she wants and what she can do and still young enough to be alluring and to get it. She also has a minor British title from her nearly-discarded current husband and the cultural background to live up to that title and embody what it means; the book doesn't make her background entirely clear but she must have grown up among upper-class Brits, since she can live that way thoughtlessly.

And I mean "thoughtlessly" in nearly every sense; that's how Brett does everything.

Barnes is the core of the story, our narrator and still center, of course - Brett loops in and out of the story multiple times; she's the kind of woman who's always running around Doing Things (with men paying for it), just a little bit too much effort and going just a bit too far. It's slightly overstating it to say Sun Also Rises is the story of how Jake's normal life is smacked repeatedly by the wrecking ball of Lady Ashley, but only slightly.

Hemingway's prose, at this point in his career, is relatively simple but doesn't come across as simplistic, as some of his later works can. There's a journalistic vigor in the way it tells the story, with a tight focus on facts and specifics. Here is A Thing, the prose says: look at it. Emotional states and self-reflection are elided; deep meanings are left to be inferred. That, I think, has made it a good book for teaching purposes: Hemingway points at things he doesn't say, and teachers can use that to explain how Fine Prose works.

I don't believe that Brett and Jake could ever have worked. But I don't believe Jake thinks that, either - as the last line telegraphs. Brett probably believed it; she's a person who can always believe in something, if it's intriguing or convenient or fun in the moment. That's the point, of course: The Sun Also Rises is a novel about wanting something you can't have, and, in the most typical old-fashioned way, that "thing" is a woman and the one wanting it is a man.

It's a slow book, a book made up of mostly small moments. Some encounters in Paris, a long vacation in Spain, people that you see for a while and then go away, only to come back later. There's a whole larger cast I'm ignoring here, the circle that Jake and Brett run with, people who also drop in and out, show up here and there.

In the end, I was impressed. I don't know if I'm all the way won over by Early Hemingway - there's still something faintly artificial around the edges - but it's a strong and supple style that works well to tell this story about these people, and that's what matters for a novel.