Friday, May 31, 2024

Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 by Seamus Heaney

If anyone actually hits this post for advice or guidance on Seamus Heaney, I have one big thing to say: read the afterword first. Opened Ground includes Heaney's 1995 speech on winning the Nobel, "Crediting Poetry," which does a good job of explaining why he wrote poetry and the kind of poetry he tried to write.

Reading that before the poems themselves would go a long way to put a reader in the right frame of mind. Reading it last instead made this reader think he'd missed the whole point, and made him faintly annoyed by Heaney's editor.

Heaney is one of the declared great poets of the twentieth century - he won the Nobel, got extravagant praise his entire career, and was a noted Harvard professor for a couple of decades. He also grew up in Northern Ireland and lived through the worst of the "Troubles" - though, reading between the lines, it seems that he moved to Dublin pretty young and America in his early thirties, so his view of NI, for most of his life, was that of an expatriate.

That feels appropriate to me. I may be cynical, but Heaney's matter feels very "auld sod" to me: mythologizing, backwards-looking, celebrating things he has personally left behind and wants to engage with only on the level of his tightly-controlled writing.

I have to admit I struggled through a lot of Opened Ground. I found it full of far-too-precious, far-too-specific Irish farming terms, words with immediate meanings only to people of Heaney's generation and heritage or older. Specificity in poetry is a good thing: I'll never deny that. But it has to be specific in ways a reader can get into, and I found Heaney's word were barriers to meaning: for me, maybe for Americans or people of my generation in general.

Halfway through, I formed a cynical schema. Heaney's poems, I postulated, were all metaphors. About half were metaphors of a rural scene of his youth: a village blacksmith, a horse pulling a plow, the color of sunlight on a Tuesday morning in June through one particular tree. The other half were metaphors for Catholicism. Eventually, I decided that was too limiting. Instead, every single Heaney poem was both: it used Irish rural dialect words about random farming details as a metaphor for Catholicism. And sometimes for the Catholic-Protestant sectarian battles, in which Heaney would not officially pick a side (even though the Irish Catholics, the greatest people on earth, are clearly correct and clearly horribly downtrodden).

Heaney wrote about people as types, not persons. He almost never uses names, instead starting with pronouns - almost exclusively "him;" women are mostly absent in Heaney's poetry other than glancing references to the fecundity of his mother and wife - and commonly writing from the viewpoint of himself as a very young child, bedazzled by the worlds of manly work and honest toil.

The Nobel lecture talks about his reasons for this - why his work is so intensely about his viewpoint, about being Seamus Heaney at its core, this person born into a troubled land at a troubled time, and  trying to write about it in ways that won't get him stood up by the side of the road and shot the next time he comes back to visit family. I appreciate all of that. I appreciated it once I read the lecture, and would have greatly appreciated having that perspective before reading the poems.

There were lines I enjoyed greatly, probably even a few entire poems. I found a lot of it too precious, in that so-common poet's way of being besotted with glittering, quirky words. I expect readers who did grow up in a rural district, or in Ireland (or possibly the British Isles in general) will find many more of those words more homey and immediate than I did. My favorite bits of Heaney were his translations: he worked quite a lot from the ancient Greek, perhaps seeing an echo of the conflicts of his own life in the Trojan War. (I did also read his translation of Beowulf a long long time ago - that may have been the reason I got this book in the first place, way back when.)

I usually end my post about books of poetry by exhorting whoever is reading to read more poetry. I'll do that again here, though it probably sounds like faint praise, since I didn't click with Heaney the way I'd hoped. Still, poetry is clarified, intense, distilled language. If you read, you need to tackle the hard stuff now and then. Maybe not Heaney, unless you're either quite different from me or ready to read the afterword first, or both.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Bonito City Tragedy by Rick Geary

I don't think you can get this book, right at this moment. The author's main website and Storenvy pages are down - at least for me, at least here. It doesn't have an ISBN, so it won't be available through the usual book channels. It was a Kickstarter, and that page is still live - but you can't jump on a train that already left the station.

The Bonito City Tragedy is the latest in a long series of books - originally from NBM, and then, over the last decade, self-published - from Rick Geary, in a small format and telling the story of a famous historical crime. Most of those crimes, I think all of them, have been murders. The publisher-backed series were "A Treasury of Victorian Murder" and "A Treasury of XXth Century Murder" (he switched centuries about seven years after the world did, one century delayed), with nine books in the first batch and seven in the second.

Since 2014, he's self-published a number of similar books: shorter, increasingly about local (to him) history, increasingly told as single large panels for each page. I don't know if this is a comprehensive list, but the books I've seen 2014 include The Elwell EnigmaThe True Death of Billy the KidMurder at the Hollywood HotelThe Story of the Lincoln County WarChester & Grace: The Adirondack Murder, and The Wallace Mystery, which all fall into that general style. (Then there was Carrizozo: An Illustrated History, which is even more local history, but much less murder.)

Bonito City Tragedy tells the story of another multiple murder, in the small New Mexico town of the title - it's currently at the bottom of a man-made lake, but that was long afterward - in 1885, when a boarder got into a fight with his roommate and escalated from there. There's no mystery to this one, unlike the older books: this guy just killed a bunch of people, very obviously, and got the immediate consequences.

Geary's art is lovely as always, rippling precise lines of crisp black making the large pictures of outdoor recreation, carefully-depicted 19th century life, and, inevitably, brutal murder..

The earlier books are deeper and longer and have a lot more nuance - telling Lizzie Borden's story gave Geary more material to work with than Billy the Kid's, for example - but I suppose he's hit all of the obvious candidates long ago, and this is the kind of story he wants to do now. If you actually find Bonito City, it's another solid story of olden-day murder, well told by Geary.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Pothunters by P.G. Wodehouse

I'll admit that one tag is a bit puckish: The Pothunters was written for younger readers, admittedly, but those are younger readers who were born about 1890 and were, at around the turn of the last century, ensconced in one of Britain's finer institutions of higher learning. I doubt any of those people are even still alive, and, if one or two were, they would be roughly a hundred and thirty years old.

On the other hand, The Pothunters is still a pleasant, amusing story of a bunch of boys at a fictional school, with dialogue that's definitely outdated but still feels like the way smartish boys would snap at each other. The plot is fairly low-stakes - a couple of silver cups, prizes for various athletic competitions, have been stolen, and one boy might be "sent down" on circumstantial evidence even though he didn't steal them - but treated seriously, and it's not low-stakes for the boys involved.

The Pothunters was P.G. Wodehouse's first novel, published in issues of Public School Magazine in early 1902 and collected into book form later that year. Wodehouse was only twenty at the time, just a couple of years out of school himself, and trying as hard as he could to build a writing career that would get him out of a dull job at a bank. (Spoiler: it worked. He resigned as soon as this novel was published as a book, just before his twenty-first birthday, and had a long and successful career as a comic novelist before being knighted and dying in 1975.)

Pothunters has a large cast of mostly boys - the details of century-old foreign boarding schools are somewhat a mystery to me, but I estimate they're in their early teens - plus a master or two and one detective from London in a featured role. Also some random groundskeepers, mostly to chase those boys away from "out of bounds" places, create dramatic tension, and threaten dire consequences. As far as I can remember, not only are there no women in it, there's no hint that the human species even contains a feminine variant. (Did I mention it was a novel for schoolboys who had lived in all-male settings pretty much their entire lives to date?)

The plot circles that silver-cup theft, or perhaps wanders around the school of St. Austin's (fictional, mostly based on Dulwich College, where Wodehouse was educated), giving Wodehouse room to have scenes with many boys in various contexts. It's a fairly thin plot, and is solved without much trouble - and not particularly by the actions of the main characters. But the point of The Pothunters is to show a way of life and a kind of person: schoolboys at a "good school" at the time. It does that well, and I found these boys amusing and their dialogue obviously of its time but otherwise entirely believable and lively.

I would not start reading Wodehouse here, a century later with other, better options. But it's better than I expected, and I can see why his original audience, which had to start Wodehouse with his first book, enjoyed The Pothunters back in the Aughts and wanted more Wodehouse after reading it.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Vol. 2: The Young King/The Remarkable Rocket adapted by P. Craig Russell

Every creator worth spending time on is more than our mental image of them. Hemingway's more than just tough-guy short sentences; Dickens is more than florid melodrama. And Wilde is not just witty, cutting epigrams in a drawing room.

I can say that. But immediate expectations don't always line up with theories.

So that was my image of Wilde, whether it made sense or not. And so I'm finding that reading his fairy tales - he wrote nine of them, in two small books very clearly as Improving Books for Younger Readers, which were, a century later, adapted by P. Craig Russell into a series of five slim volumes of comics - has been an exercise in expectations vs. reality. (See my first post, on The Selfish Giant/The Star Child, from about two months ago.) Wilde means what he writes in these stories: they are classic fairy tales, with a moral and everything, designed to impart important wisdom to an audience assumed to be young and pliable enough to accept that wisdom.

And I was not used to a Wilde writing without multiple layers of irony.

Most obviously: these are vaguely Christian, in a generally middle-Church Anglican way. There's a Jesus figure in one of the stories in the first book, and there's another one here in the second, The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde: The Young King/The Remarkable Rocket. Reading Wilde almost a hundred and fifty years later, that was unexpected. It shouldn't have been - Wilde was both a man of his age and (I should have remembered) fond of Christ metaphors in De Profundis - but it was.

So, first off: Wilde's fairy tales, I think, are light and cutting, like much of his work - but essentially serious in aim, which his plays are definitely not. With that in mind, let's look at the two stories here, as adapted by Russell.

The Young King is the longer, more substantial piece, with a few elements (notably the Christ imagery) that echo The Star Child from the first book. Our title character is sixteen and it is the night before his coronation. He has an odd ancestry - child of a runaway princess and her goatherd lover, retrieved in later childhood as the only heir - that seems designed to make him clearly not the standard young prince type. Our lad loves Beauty, in a way that read to me as gay coding but may have been meant by Wilde as a less subtle way of saying he's obsessed by material things. By "Beauty" - I feel the need to capitalize it, as Wilde often does - the young man means the finest materials, the most exquisite jewels, the greatest workmanship: all of the luxuries that incredibly rich people, such as kings, are able to demand.

Anyway, that night before his coronation, this young man sleeps and has multiple dreams, which we are meant to take as true visions. He sees the grinding work and horrible conditions of the people who actually make the beautiful things for his coronation regalia, and so changes his mind: he will eschew all of the fripperies, and proceed to the cathedral in his old goatherd clothes.

Naturally, all of the nobles, the assembled throngs of peasantry, and even the Bishop who is to crown him are strongly opposed, but our hero Is Correct, and is bathed in the light of God at the appropriate moment. He becomes king, and the story quietly ends without trying to describe how he will actually rule with his new understanding.

The Remarkable Rocket is a simpler and shorter story, among the fireworks assembled for another royal celebration, the upcoming wedding of a prince and princess. One large rocket is incredibly self-centered, supercilious, hectoring, and nearly every other possible negative trait you can think of. He talks endlessly, boring the other fireworks, and then works himself into a fit of tears over a potential future he declares only he is sensitive enough to care about. Those tears mean he cannot be fired off as he's supposed to, which leads to his being discarded, and, eventually - after also boring a succession of barnyard animals and others - shooting off unnoticed and pointlessly.

The lesson here is clearly "understand your role in things," or, more generally, "don't be a self-centered ass." It's amusing in that extremely over-the-top way of really obvious fairy tales, the ones constructed so even the stupidest children in the room will get it.

As in the first book, Russell draws all of this with lightness and energy - he's particularly good with light in Young King, and his colors are superb throughout. He also incorporates a huge amount of Wilde's prose into his story, with long captions throughout both stories. As usual with Russell, it's a very thoughtful, close adaptation.

I still find the actual stories told here a bit obvious and flat, in that hectoring mode "for kids" that I disliked when actually a child and haven't warmed up much to since. But Wilde's language is precise and cutting, and Russell's art is beautiful and carefully poised, so this is an excellent presentation of the material...it's just that tend to think the material is poking me to stand up straight and fix my hair a bit more than I'd like.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Housewife

"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 said I might do this, and I did.

No regrets; this is a song I love, and will push it out more than once just to have an excuse to listen to it one more time.

In a better world, this would be on its way to becoming the Gen Z anthem: Fuck Around Phase, by Housewife.

Housewife is now a one-woman band: Brighid Fry. It was originally a two-woman band called Moscow Apartment, but I gather "Moscow" became problematic, so the name changed in 2022, and then, later that year, the other woman (Pascale Padilla, who I hope turns up making other music) left the band.

I say "woman," because I went to Vassar, but the two of them were in their mid-teens when they formed Moscow Apartment in 2017. So there's also a "growing up in public" aspect to Housewife, which comes through like a bell in this great song.

Fuck Around Phase is, I think, a song about Padilla leaving the band:

Last year I wasn’t like this
Lost my balance and I fell hard
Wish I could blame it all on the circus
But you’re the only clown that gave me scars

The only accusations are the ones Fry throws at herself, the only complaints are the ones others make about her:

They say “Brighid Why’re you being an asshole”
Cuz Brighid wanna have a good time

It's a song intensely itself, perfectly titled, full of piss and vinegar and the arrogance of youth...and also the deep understanding that all of that is self-indulgent and transient, that there will be a reckoning not too far off. It's very close to being a self-refuting song, one that is both unrepentant and looking forward to the moment when this will all be a horrible, regrettable, memory.

But not yet. Not today. Today we are still in the Fuck Around Phase, and it is glorious.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Quote of the Week: The One-Bite Rule

The youth smiled. "You must not believe that foolish story, that we Sanduskers are religious fanatics who eat vile food rather than flagellate ourselves. It is quite incorrect. Come now. Are you a fair man?"

Gersen considered. "Not unusually so."

The youth went to one of the tubs, dipped up a wad of glistening black-crusted maroon paste. "Taste! Judge for yourself! Use your mouth rather than your nose!"

Gersen gave a fatalistic shrug, tasted. The inside of his mouth seemed first to tingle, then expand. His tongue coiled back in his throat.

"well?" asked the youth.

"If anything," said Gersen at last, "it tastes worse than it smells."

The youth sighed. "Such is the general consensus."

 - Jack Vance, The Killing Machine (p.167 in The Demon Princes, Vol. 1)

Friday, May 24, 2024

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy

No art is perfect. But short works have a better shot than most - they can be precise and sharp and focused in ways that longer, more diffuse ones can't be.

So I won't claim Horace McCoy's short 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is perfect. But it's damn close: precisely constructed to telegraph its noir doom-laden atmosphere, intensely focused on two main characters and their troubles, tautly told to both stretch and collapse time.

One thing the best books can do is explain exactly what they're going to do - signpost the ending on the very first page, from the very first words - and then roll it out inexorably, showing what they told they would.

McCoy does that here: before chapter 1 even starts, there's a half-title - in a style, and following a narrative, that continues throughout the book - in the voice of a judge pronouncing sentence. And the reader quickly realizes what that sentence is, and who is receiving it.

They Shoot Horses is the story of Robert Syverten and Gloria Beatty. They're Hollywood wannabees in the depths of the Depression, who met randomly on a street, both looking for extra work. Gloria wants to be an actress; Robert thinks he could be a director, and is moderately realistic about how he could do that. Robert is our first-person narrator. Gloria is...well, he calls her his best friend very early on. She's definitely not "his girl," though they might have a sexual relationship - this is a 1930s book, so it's quietly coded in a way that would have been clearer to a contemporary audience, but not entirely clear, to foil potential censors.

But they're not in love. They're not planning a life together. They want the same sort of things and are in the same sort of life and they can support each other, so they do.

They've only known each other for a short time, though. Only a few days.

Gloria has heard about a dance marathon contest, on a pier at Santa Monica. Participants get fed while the contest runs, and get beds to sleep in for their few breaks, plus at least some medical attention. The winning couple gets a thousand dollars. There's even a possibility of being "discovered" and getting Hollywood work; the marathons are high-profile and attract big audiences, including celebrities. They could do a lot worse. They pretty much are already doing a lot worse.

So Gloria convinces Robert to join the contest with her.

It's a grinding, horrible thing - "dance" only by courtesy. The couples need to keep moving, on the dance floor, swaying or walking, for one hour fifty minutes of every two. And it's endless. Gloria and Robert were one of a hundred and forty-four couples that started.

Halfway through the first page of chapter four, McCoy drops this: "The first week was the hardest." By chapter nine, there are twenty-six couples left, after 752 hours elapsed.  (That would be thirty-one days.) Conversation among the couples has been whether this one will run 2500 hours - apparently two thousand hours is pretty common.

Some of the couples do this regularly, traveling around the country, "dancing" for months at a time in one place. Again, this is the Depression: it could be a lot worse.

The whole point is that people can't take it, of course. They collapse, drop out. You can't have an elimination competition without eliminating people.

But they're not dropping out fast enough, and the audiences aren't large enough. So the promoters decide to speed it up, with a "derby" every evening - during prime attendance hours - with the couples more-or-less running laps around the floor, and the slowest couple eliminated each night. (That's what helped them get down to twenty-six couples as quickly as hour 752.)

And Gloria keeps saying she wants to die. It's her one consistent topic of conversation. Her parents are dead; the uncle she lived with either tried to abuse her or actually did; she's tried suicide at least once. The uncle's probably not the only one who abused her, either. She's been kicked around, and is tired of it: she just wants it all to stop, but can't do it herself.

This is a noir. I shouldn't have to explain any further.

There are some other characters I haven't mentioned, some additional complications. There's an older lady who is Gloria and Robert's biggest fan, there's a visit from the busybodies of the local Morals League, there's sexual intrigue among the couples, there's even one participant nabbed for a murder a few years back. But it's mostly about the stress of the marathon on Robert and Gloria, as they each crack in their own ways. Robert want to get outside again, to see sunlight more than just one short hour of the day. And Gloria wants - well, Gloria wants to die.

The only bright spot there is that, if you're a character in a noir and you want to die, you'll actually get your wish.

(I read this in the Library of America volume Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s, which also includes five similar novels by Cain, Woolrich, and others. I recommend it.)

Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Killing Machine by Jack Vance

This is the second a of a five-book series; if you decide to read it, you already know you'll be in for the duration.

Well, originally, it wasn't as clear. The Killing Machine followed The Star King only seven months later, at the end of 1964. And readers knew that Kirth Gersen was chasing the five Demon Princes - the ganglords or pirates or monstrosities that teamed up to destroy his childhood home and enslave its people - and assumed that there would be five books to cover them all. They couldn't know it would take another seventeen years for Jack Vance to write the books and get them published.

But, then, revenge always is a longer, more twisting road than we expect, isn't it?

I covered the series set-up, as well as the glories of reading Vance, when I wrote about Star King, so I won't repeat that: as usual for Vance, this is a big, complex universe, full of characters and institutions with their own goals and schemes, full of quirky details that arise from emergent properties of the universe.

For example: personal spacecraft are common, perhaps only slightly more expensive than a car was to a 1964 reader. And ships using the Jarnell intersplit FTL drive can't be directly tracked or followed - pursuers can go where they think the ship is heading, but could be wrong. Therefore fleeing the civilized Oikumene to the lawless Beyond is simple: Vance does have port-control operations on some worlds, but there doesn't seem to be anything like orbital-level patrols and ship tracking, and worlds are big enough to find some rural district to use as a convenient landing place.

Because of that, the law is weak. Criminals can escape quickly, unless response is very swift, and the major activity of the law we see is entirely reactive: secretive operations in the Beyond, to find the worst malefactors and bring justice to them. (I put it that way specifically; it seems more common than the reverse.)

In particular, kidnapping is fairly easy. Just grab someone, get them to a spaceship, and fly away. It's so common that a major operation in the Beyond is the quasi-corporate Interchange, a banking operation and secure location where kidnappees are kept, in more or less comfort, until the "rescission" of their "fees." Or, if their friends and family don't have the cash, until someone else buys them into slavery or the cost of keeping them outweighs their potential value and they are reluctantly released (which seems to happen only very rarely).

In Star King, Gersen is trying to find a way to the second Demon Prince, Kokor Hekkus. All five are mysterious and little-known, hiding behind false identities when they travel in the Oikumene, as well as being famously violent and mercurial in their own ways. Through a series of events, Gersen finds himself a guest of Interchange, one of a large number of people Hekkus has kidnapped to raise a massive sum of money.

Gersen learns that Hekkus is trying to "redeem" Alusz Iphigenia Eperje-Tokay, a beautiful woman who claims to be from the lost planet Thamber - mostly a legend in the Oikumene, a locus for fables that's generally assumed to be fictional. And that Hekkus himself is from Thamber, which actually does exist. Eperje-Tokay put herself in Interchange, with the highest "fee" she could convince the owners to allow, as the only way to protect herself from Hekkus's unpleasant attentions back on their homeworld.

It was the only reasonable way to stop Hekkus, but it may only delay him: he's already paid in more than half of the total fee.

For Gersen, this is an opportunity. The secretive Hekkus will need to come to Interchange to redeem Eperje-Tokay - or would chase her if she were to be "redeemed" by someone else. Even better, Eperje-Tokay might be able to help him find Thamber, where he could search out Hekkus and kill him there.

But to do any of that, Gersen must first raise a small fortune for his own freedom - and then another, vaster fortune, the size of a small planetary economy, to free Eperje-Tokay.

He does. They do get to Thamber, and confront Hekkus there. As with Killing Machine, there's a substantial section where a character may be the Demon Prince in disguise, and Gersen needs to find out the truth. (He wants revenge, but he also wants the Demon Princes to know why they die before they die, so he can't just shoot down anyone who might be Hekkus indiscriminately.)

Two elements here, as I remember them, change the plots of the series going forward: the presence of Eperje-Tokay, and the vast sums of money Gersen can now access after freeing her. But I'll leave any discussion of that to The Palace of Love, the third book in the series. I expect to get to that in another couple of months.

(Consumer note: the Vance-family-run Spatterlight Press has an edition of Killing Machine in print, which I linked above. I read it in the omnibus The Demon Princes, Vol. 1, which contains the first three novels of the series, and which I recommend as a more economical and capacious collection of Vance.)

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Corset & the Jellyfish by Nick Bantock

With a work of short fiction, a reviewer usually has two choices. Either talk about the work as a whole - maybe it's a tightly-themed collection, or a fix-up - or go into detail for each individual story, if they're really separate pieces.

Today I can't really do either of those things.

The Corset & the Jellyfish was Nick Bantock's new book last year, a collection of one hundred "drabbles" - stories of exactly one hundred words. It also, possibly, has a loose link to his most famous work, the "Griffin & Sabine" series of heavily-designed and -constructed epistolary stories. For the last complication, Bantock claims that the whole book also incorporates one final uber-drabble, made up of precisely one word from each of the hundred pieces here, in that order, to tell a hundred-and-first story.

(My assumption is that Bantock wrote that uber-drabble first, and then constructed the book around it. Well, if the uber-drabble is even real: within the metafiction of the book, it's a theory, so Bantock might even be playing a different game here.)

So: there is no overall story to cover. And I'm not going to write about a hundred extremely short stories, either. If I had the time and inclination, I'd dump all of the text into a spreadsheet and see if I could get a GenAI tool to comb that for coherent potential uber-drabbles - it seems to be a solvable problem, one that would be tedious by hand but could be quick with the right tools.

This is a short book: it may have a hundred stories, but they only add up to ten thousand words (plus the introduction), so it's roughly the length of a novelette. They are very various, each setting out a somewhat quirky situation - Bantock isn't making pun drabbles, as some do, but many of them are gently humorous and none are overly serious.

There are also little colored pen-and-ink drawings, one for each drabble - Bantock's introduction specifically says that they are supposed to line up to the stories, but that organization was lost, so the way they are arranged in this book is probably "wrong" - which Bantock calls "petroglyphic creatures" and "icons." It is hinted that they were drawn, within the world of the story, by his fictional Sabine.

It's pleasant and amusing and short. I only read the original three "Griffin & Sabine" books, thirty years ago when they were a sensation - I see there was another trilogy a decade later, and then a standalone in 2016 - so I suspect readers more invested in this metafiction will find more in it than I did. But what I did find was just fine for a short, light book.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Victory Parade by Leela Corman

It can be easy to lose track of just how much work and time goes into a single comics panel - to think of a graphic novel like prose, where you can strike out a line and rewrite it at any time. But comics are much more architected than that, built up in stages, and you can't build a penthouse unless you have the right foundation.

It's more obvious with books that don't tell simple, direct stories - ones where the architecture had to be laid out more carefully, planned more fully, and where the foundation had to be chosen to tell this particular version of all of the possible stories circling in the creator's head.

I bring this up with Leela Corman's stunning new graphic novel Victory Parade, because this is not a straightforward book. It's skips around in time and space - not hugely, but enough that the reader needs to pay attention - and is not telling one single narrative, but a loosely connected skein of stories weaving through an interconnected cast during WWII. It starts in the middle of a situation, and ends without a single big moment, like life.

Victory Parade is mostly the story of three women, of three different ages, starting in 1943 New York. All are Jewish, which is important, alongside a dozen other facets of their personalities and lives that are also important. Rose Arensberg is working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard while her husband Sam is fighting with the Army in Europe - and she's also sleeping with the maimed veteran George Finlay, who lives in the same building. Her daughter Eleanor has the least to do of the three, as a mostly-innocent primary-schooler. Then there's Ruth, a Jewish refugee from Germany who has been living with Rose and Eleanor for several years - she came as a young teen, and is now twentyish. 

Ruth is the only survivor of her family, as far as she knows.

Ruth is also pretty enough and young enough that she gets endless attention from men - grasping, crude, horrible attention - and hot-headed enough that she fights back and gets in trouble for it. An opportunity arises for her to use all that as a wrestler, and she takes it, starting to train and fight matches.

Late in the book, we also see Sam - first back from the war, then in flashback, after the liberation of the Buchenwald camp. He's as admirable or relatable as the other characters: that can be "a lot" or "barely at all," depending on the reader, of course.

Corman tells these stories on pages that feel smaller, more constrained, than the reader expects - mostly four-panel grids, as if a whole tier was cut off or never existed. Her drawing is organic, her people have sharp, strong faces - none of these people are pretty, but then their world isn't, either. There are multiple dream sequences, sometimes bursting into waking life, full of violent imagery, particularly severed limbs.

Again, Corman is not telling one story, and there's no crisp "plot" running from beginning to end. All of these people do things, feel things, worry about things, suffer things. Not all of them make it to the end. And standing behind all of them are the millions who didn't make it through WWII, both the dead of the Holocaust and the soldiers on all sides doing their best to kill each other. We're seeing the stories of a few of them: mostly women, mostly in New York, mostly Jewish, mostly survivors. But "surviving" is a moving target; there's a lot of brokenness that isn't quite "actually dead."

Victory Parade has an ironic title: there are few victories here, and no parades. It's a powerful, deep story that will not tell you how to read it, how to feel about it, or about whom to care the most.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Hot Springs

"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'm not deliberately alternating here, going from a slow song to a loud one, but sometimes the alphabet falls out that way. Last week was quiet and contemplative; this week is loud and pushy.

This time out I have Headrush, my favorite song from the short-lived Montreal band Hot Springs, led by singer-songwriter-guitarist Giselle Webber. It starts with a roar and never lets up, and Webber sings it with a throaty growl and a tone and accent utterly unique.

It's from their one and only album, 2007's Volcano (which has several other great songs like Fantome Dinosaure and Cellophane), and it rocks out from the moment it starts.

I usually try to weave in some lyrics to these posts, but this song has no lyrics posted anywhere I can find. And Webber's voice is so individual, her accent so unique, that I hesitate to try to figure it out myself.

But this is rock: you need to listen, not to analyze. Turn it up, pump your fist. Feel the Headrush.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Quote of the Week: Call Someplace Paradise, Kiss It Goodbye

"It is evil," the Old Wise One said. "For very long we have walked carefree in the only paradise. It would be better if all here  were to die."

The last Shadow child said firmly, "Nothing is worse than that I should die," and something that had wrapped the world was gone. It went in an instant and left the river and the mist, the shaking, dancing marshmen and chanting Lastvoice and themselves all unchanged, but it had been bigger than everything and Sandwalker had never seen it because it had been there always, but now he could not remember what it had been.

 - Gene Wolfe, "'A Story,' by John V. Marsch," p.134 in The Fifth Head of Cerberus

Friday, May 17, 2024

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

What struck me first this time around is that The Fifth Head of Cerberus is not about the same things that "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" is, which is pretty much textbook Wolfe.

I may need to explain. "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" was a novella by Gene Wolfe, published in Orbit 10 in 1972. Later that year, it became the first third of the fix-up novel The Fifth Head of Cerberus, along with two other novellas - "'A Story,' by John V. Marsch" and "V.R.T." - that were original to the book version.

The novella "Fifth Head" is narrated in the first person by a young man on a human colony planet, a few hundred years in the future. We never learn his name, but I think we're supposed to be able to deduce it. (My cynical theory is that it is "Gene Wolfe," because his author was, even that young, more self-satisfied than any one person ever should be.) The novella is mostly about figuring out who this boy is, and how he related to the rest of his odd family: his scientist/brothel-keeper "father" and reclusive "aunt" and, least important, his "brother."

The novel is about the aboriginal race that inhabited a neighboring planet before humans arrived - whether they actually ever existed, whether they still do, whether they are the shape-shifters popular legend makes them out to be, whether the humans of these two worlds are actually, or partially, transformed aboriginals.

The boy in the first story is pretty comprehensively not an abo - there's a secret there, as there always is with Wolfe, but it's a more standard SFnal secret, and signposted clearly early on in the novella. So his story starts the novel, and sets everything in motion, but he and his concerns disappear at the end of his story, staying entirely as background for the other two pieces.

To explain a bit more: Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne are sister planets, circling a common center, both very Earth-like worlds of a star that is never specified. They were settled by "the French," and, not even a generation later, some other group from Earth came, conquered or massacred "the French," and set up separate polities on the two planets that are now in something of a Cold War with each other. We don't know who the other group was; it doesn't seem to matter. That the initial group was French does seem to matter, for no clear reason. (It may just be that they were Catholic, like Wolfe himself: he can never get away from that.)

Sainte Anne - the other planet, the one the boy does not live on - was the home of the Shadow Children, the abos, the Annese. They were pointedly not tool-users - one way, supposedly, to tell a transformed abo is that his hands are clumsy, that he's not good at tools, that he can't write clearly. They lived there, in small hunter-gatherer bands, before the coming of humans, fighting each other in small ways and having an elaborate cosmology that varied a lot between the warring groups.

'A Story' is an aboriginal legend - or one created after the fact by humans, or something in between those two possibilities - written down by the title character, who also appeared in "Fifth Head." Marsch was an anthropologist from Earth, doing his graduate field world on Sainte Anne, researching the possibly-mythical abos. He visited the Sainte Croix brothel the main character of "Fifth Head" grew up in, during the action of that novella - pointedly, after doing three years of field work, out in the bush of Sainte Anne.

Marsch is the main character of the novel, as much as anyone is. Or, to be more specific, the person claiming to be Marsch is the main character, and understanding who and what he is is the point of the book.

That third novella, "V.R.T.," is mostly a document dump. An unnamed - if you read Wolfe, you have to be able to minimize your annoyance at all the things he hides or avoids, all his all-too-obvious look-at-me clevernesses - officer of the Sainte Croix government is examining the records of a prisoner, to make a determination of his final fate.

That prisoner is Marsch, or was posing as him. The title of the novella is the initials of a young man who worked for Marsch, doing field-work on Sainte Anne. That boy is Victor Trenchard - the first name given only once, the last name mentioned probably four or five times, in a shocking flood of helpfulness to the reader from Wolfe. (If there was a clue as to his middle name, I missed it.)

Victor's father claimed to be an abo; he is almost certainly a liar. Victor says he is half-abo; that may in fact be true. And the person in prison on Sainte Croix - who the authorities think is an impostor, a spy sent by the Saint Annese authorities and implicated in a murder that happens in "Fifth Head" - is either Marsch himself, the man from Earth, or Victor, transformed to resemble him, taking over his life after his mysterious death in the outback of Sainte Anne.

(It is not difficult to figure out which is true. Wolfe occasionally does make some things clear.)

Fifth Head is deep and interesting and a marvelous puzzle. It's also deeply self-indulgent and often too clever by half. Even this early in his career, Wolfe made no effort to treat women as human beings, or to explain any of the things in his stories he didn't feel like explaining. In the end, it's the kind of labyrinth that endlessly circles itself: there's no real center to this puzzle, no moment of enlightenment, so unless the journey itself is worthwhile to the reader, it will fall flat. I found the journey worthwhile, the puzzle interesting and intricate: but it was a close thing, and Wolfe's obvious right-wing Catholicism (of the "they might as well all die, and the few that aren't utter sinners will be redeemed" variety) is less appealing the clearer I see it.

Wolfe is one of the most obvious "your mileage will vary" writers in the SFF world. I don't know that I'd recommend any woman read him; he is so male and so misogynist (that's not quite the right word: Wolfe doesn't hate women, he just doesn't understand or see or value them as anything like the thing he believes himself to be). But he is fascinating, especially in his best work. And this is one. 

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Degas and Cassatt: A Solitary Dance by Salva Rubio and Efa

Just so you know how much of a rube I am: my first big takeaway from this book was that Degas is not an Impressionist, but aligned more with the traditionalist, academic painters of 19th century France in his style and working methods. Who knew!? (Well, probably everyone who cared, and millions more who had a better art-history education than I did.)

Degas and Cassatt: A Solitary Dance is the second book by creators Salva Rubio (writer) and (Ricard) Efa (artist and colorist) in a loose series about the Impressionists and their circle, after Monet: Itinerant of Light. I'm fairly confident that there isn't a third book lurking in the middle, untranslated - their other collaboration to date was a book on Django Reinhardt.

Degas and Cassatt somewhat follows the model of Monet: we begin at Degas's grave, with an aged Cassatt thinking through all of the criticisms of his personality and work - more personality than work, and a lot of those - and wondering if he ever found happiness. The book then flashes back to tell the story of Degas's working career, with a secondary focus on Cassatt's work. We don't get Cassatt's full story, and the focus is on their painting and relationship - this is a narrower, more specific book than Monet, which looked to encompass a whole life.

Degas, from the version presented here, was a stiff, unpleasant, demanding man - obsessed with painting "Frenchwomen" (often very young ones in ballet costumes) but also notably misogynist even for his day, and fanatically devoted to his work to the point of refusing most human contact. He was usually alone, by choice. He never married, and there are no plausible rumors of affairs with women - even with all the ballerinas and models he met. It's barely possible he was gay, but, if so, he was either entirely closeted or had a world-class discretion that left no trace at all of any connections. Really, the simple explanation is most likely: he had work, not people. He was a spiky, obnoxious man, whose few friends liked his company, in small doses, in spite of his massive faults - and, luckily for them, Degas disliked people so much that they only ever got small doses of him.

The secondary focus on Cassatt was a good choice here: it humanizes Degas, gives us a relatable and positive viewpoint on his life, and allows us to see him in context. Manet serves a similar role - as another demanding, hard-headed painter with strongly-held artistic views who argues with Degas - in the front half of the book, providing another point of comparison, this time to an artist who did indulge in women. (Too much so, since he died of syphilis at fifty-one.)

Rubio and Efa show some of Degas's famous work here, but they don't aim to recreate that work extensively in panels the way they did in Monet. (The effect was mostly lost on me in the earlier book, so I'll just note the difference.)

It's a wordy, thoughtful book that dives deeply into Degas's artistic impulses and driving passions, presented in mostly soft colors that somewhat mimic Degas's own work. It doesn't quite look like a Degas painting - says the man who has admitted several times he's no art expert - but it looks Degas-esque, as if it were the record of the world he saw and captured in his work. And Degas himself comes across about as understandable and positively as I can imagine possible, for such a self-obsessed, inherently solitary man.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Usagi Yojimbo, Book 2: Samurai by Stan Sakai

The second collection of the long-running anthropomorphic samurai saga Usagi Yojimbo collects the first six issues of the ongoing series, the floppies starting in 1987 and the book appearing in 1989. It seems to be basically the same edition now as then: there are larger collected volumes available, and maybe a version under a slightly different title with added color, but if you picked up this book, in its first or tenth printing, it would be the same.

And, as is fairly typical for a series that started in anthologies (see the first Usagi book, The Ronin, for those initial stories), getting its own title meant a big "tell the backstory" saga. Most of Usagi Yojimbo, Book 2: Samurai is made up of the nine-part title story; there are three other short tales at the end. (So my impression is that each of these first two issues had two "stories," either sections of "Samurai" or one of the shorter pieces.)

"Samurai" is presented as a story Usagi - our hero, a highly skilled rabbit samurai in an Edo-era Japan full of various races of animals - is telling another ronin, after having just killed an old friend in a duel.

Friend? Yes: that's the hook.

Usagi starts with his youth, when he and another boy from the same village are sent off to study to become samurai, but take different paths along the way. They find different masters, separate for a long time, meet again at a tournament, and so on. (I should point out here that the boy from the village is not the friend Usagi kills in the present-day story; we already know what happened to that other boy in later life.)

After that, Usagi, having proved his skills, enters the service of a major feudal lord, and rises in the ranks to become a trusted bodyguard. But the war mentioned in the very first Usagi story hits, and we see Usagi's lord betrayed by a general and killed on the battlefield. All that explains why Usagi was after this "friend," and we come full circle in the end.

The other three stories are shorter, unconnected with the larger plotline. One is a spooky supernatural tale, another a sillier monster story with a baby "Zylla" (sparking the far too nudge-to-the-ribs dialogue line, "Are you a God, Zylla?" Har Har Har), and then a fairly standard stand-up-to-the-evil-capitalist story.

All of this is solid work, both in writing and art: Sakai is fairly wordy here, in that late-80s style, but he has a lot to explain. It's pitched at an "all-ages" level - samurai fights lead to immediate death without obvious blood, the possibility of sexual assault of village maidens is hinted at but not followed up, that sort of thing - that I might find limiting, if the entire multi-thousand-page series stays at that acceptable-to-tweens level.

Sakai is good at storytelling, though he doesn't let his pages extend the way his Japanese models do - he didn't have the luxury of a studio full of assistants and the demands of a weekly magazine wanting a couple of dozen pages, I suppose - and his lines are crisp and evocative.

Still, there is something inherently derivative here: it's modeled on something like a dozen Japanese originals, both movies and manga, and I struggle to come up with a good reason to insist that readers should go here rather than to those originals. Usagi is fine work, absolutely, but fine work acting as a mirror for even better work.

My assumption is that Usagi Yojimbo becomes more itself as it goes along, and I'll continue, watching for that.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Good.: From the Amazon Jungle to Suburbia and Back by FLuX and David Good

First up, this is not non-fiction; there's a disclaimer on the copyright page: "This book is a work of fiction inspired by actual events." It does use the real names of all of the people involved, was written or co-written by the main character, and roughly follows the real history as far as I can determine from news stories and the description of David Good's 2015 prose memoir The Way Around.

But there's something constructed at the core of the graphic novel Good.: From the Amazon Jungle to Suburbia and Back that led to that disclaimer. I don't know all of the details. But it's clear that this is not, at its core, true. And that's a puzzling thing for a book positioned as a memoir.

David Good is the eldest of three children of American anthropologist Kenneth Good and the Yanomani woman Yarima. The elder Good took his first trip into the Amazon rainforest to live with the Yanomani in 1975, and spent much of the next twelve years there, learning the language and being accepted by a local tribe, said acceptance meaning he had to marry a local woman. "Woman" here means maybe 12 when they were married and possibly as old as 16 when the marriage was consummated.

Kenneth and Yarima then lived in New Jersey for a few years - the mid-80s, if I have the sequence right - where those three children were born, while Kenneth was working on his PhD. Yarima was left, while Kenneth worked long hours, in a suburban house with three pre-school children, in an alien culture where she didn't speak the language well, while she still possibly wasn't old enough to drink legally. The family returned to the Venezuelan rainforest roughly once a year for a long visit - I'm going to guess each summer, during the long break of the academic year, and possibly partially funded by an ongoing research grant of Kenneth's - and, one year, for reasons and in a manner that seems to vary somewhat between retellings, Yarima refused to return to America, so Kenneth left her behind and took the children back north.

In Good., this is the dividing line: David Good was five years old when his mother faded back into the jungle instead of getting onto a small plane, and he didn't see her again until he was an adult. But it's not clear what Kenneth did, since the Yanomani were still the core of his academic work. Did Kenneth continue his fieldwork, visiting without his half-Yanomami children for the years in between? Did he visit a different Yanomani tribe - maybe the break-up of his marriage soured his relationship with this one?  Or did he just stop doing fieldwork after he got his PhD? None of that is clear in Good., which is the story of the child David rather than the adult Kenneth.

Meanwhile, Kenneth wrote his own book about his experiences, 1991's Into the Heart. I haven't seen a clear timeline of this whole thing, but that seems to be fairly soon after Yarima returned to the Yanomani. I've seen references to David being twenty-five in 2010, which would put his birth in 1984 or 1985, and make him five around 1989-90. Arguing for a slightly earlier timeline, the repeated "twelve years" of Kenneth's fieldwork, starting in 1975, could imply the break was around 1987 or 1988. Finally, a 1991 book would have been written at least a year or two before. (I found a NYTimes review of Kenneth's book, which implies its viewpoint is from before Yarima returned, and which provides more context to Yanomani life.)

That's the general outline of the story, consistent across what I've seen across all three books and various articles. How much, and what parts, of this story as told in Good. are fictionalized, I don't know. Good. doesn't make that clear, or explain why it was fictionalized. I haven't read Into the Heart or The Way Around, both of which were written with collaborators, as Good. was. I suspect that at least part of the fictionalization has to do with the "warlike" nature of the Yanomani people - the first major book about them, from the 1960s, was Yanomama: The Fierce People - and how that violence affected Good's family, since I've also seen references to his mother having been gang-raped during one of Kenneth's trips away from this tribal group. David Good's vision of his mother's people in Good. is entirely positive and sunny and happy: that's a beautiful vision, and inspires his charitable and other work these days, but no people in the history of the world are perfectly peaceful and happy.

I've also neglected to mention David Good's collaborator on Good., the gallery artist, cartoonist and illustrator who works as FLuX. (From the acknowledgements, I think his real name is John Malloy.) The book doesn't make their roles clear: the PDF I read has FLuX listed first in the author credit, while covers online have the reverse order. I don't know if Good scripted the book, or if he met with FLuX to talk through his story and FLuX scripted it, or some more complicated process. Somehow, though, these two men made this fictionalized version of David Good's story.

I think the fictionalization is to frame it. Most of Good. is told in alternating chapters: the longer ones focus on David, are presented in black and white and heavily narrated in his own voice, telling his story from childhood. In between are color-saturated, wordless short vignettes of Yarima's life, from her own birth, presenting an idealized vision of a paradisiacal life in the rainforest among a wonderful, loving people. (Until she moves to New Jersey with Kenneth, for a darker interlude that ends with her return to paradise.) As an adult, after a tumultuous adolescence, David seeks out his mother - the narrative doesn't emphasize this, but it's notable that it's another anthropologist, not his father, who helps him get into the jungle and find his mother's nomadic people - and that heals him and makes everything better. The book ends with a sequence marrying the two art styles, with David's narration boxes overlaid on the sunny, bright colors of the Yarima sections.

It's an uplifting story, a lovely one marred only slightly by that lurking question of how fake it is. It's probably mostly true. And David Good has dedicated his life to good works since then, pursing a PhD based on the Yanomani microbiome and starting a foundation in their name.

I just want Yarima's real story. This one is clearly fictionalized so far as to be a fantasy. It sounds like Into the Heart also had long sequences ostensibly from her POV that, I suspect, were equally "true." What I really want to read is what she really thought, what her life was actually like - including the violence of the Yanomani culture that Kenneth Good seems to have made a career out of minimizing (and, to be clear, it also sounds like researchers before him leaned heavily into the "noble savage" myth, going much too far in mythologizing and centralizing that violence). That would take an independent viewpoint - not a man related to her - and will probably never happen.

Good. is fine as far as it goes, and David Good's story is genuinely inspiring. I don't fault him or his collaborator for not understanding his mother, a woman from a completely different culture who he knew only as a very young child. But it's important to be clear on what Good. is and isn't: it's a cleaned-up, fictionalized version of this story, from David Good's viewpoint, presenting him as the hero and savior. That is a plausible reading of the story, admittedly: and much better than plausible if you happen to be David Good. But the Yarima sections of this book are just too cartoony, too kumbaya, to be believable, even if you don't already know that her people are famous in anthropological circles as "the violent people."

Monday, May 13, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Hem

"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.

Minor-key songs often sound sadder than they're supposed to be. (I hope I'm saying that right - what I mean is that there's a whole category of songs that sound sad to me, even if the lyrics aren't directly depressing.) This is one of them; I think it's actually pretty positive - but it sounds plaintive and almost despairing.

This is Not California by Hem, from 2008. From what I understand, it's half a joke, about all those young-people-in-LA shows on the CW back in the early Aughts. The songwriter and the singer are different people, and he (the writer) is slightly chiding her (the singer) about her love of something they both know is deeply fake.

But the chorus is quietly devastating if you're not listening closely, in its simple power:

And it's not true
And it's not fair
And it's not you
And it's not California here

It's a slow song, with a folky vibe, driven equally by Sally Ellyson's lovely singing - quiet at first, building as the song goes on - and a combination of mandolin and pedal steel.

And I'm not strong 
And you're not rich 
And we're not lost 
Where we don't live 

It comes across as plaintive, reaching out to another person who maybe is too focused on "California," the image of a perfect life, of perfect people, of being someone else somewhere else and abandoning all the things that make up their real lives where they are.

I see a lot of people online have taken it as a song about moving away, about living in places you didn't grow up - for good or bad. That's plausible: every song is half what you bring to it.

But I think it's mostly a warning: that wherever we are, even if it's on the beach in Santa Monica, thin and young and beautiful with no cares in the world, it's still Not California, still not that dream. And it never will be. Chasing that dream will never work.

(And let me close by linking to another great version of this song, a slightly countrified cover by Elizabeth Cook.)

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Quote of the Week: The Story of the Rabbit and the Eggplant

Once upon a time there was a race between a rabbit and an eggplant. Now, the eggplant, as you know, is a member of the vegetable kingdom, and the rabbit is a very fast animal.

Everybody bet lots of money on the eggplant, thinking that if a vegetable challenges a live animal with four legs to a race, then it must be that the vegetable knows something.

People expected the eggplant to win the race by some clever trick of philosophy. The race was started, and there was a lot of cheering. The rabbit streaked out of sight.

The eggplant just sat there at the starting line. Everybody knew that in some surprising way the eggplant would wind up winning the race.

Nothing of the sort happened. Eventually, the rabbit crossed the finish line, and the eggplant hadn't moved an inch.

The spectators ate the eggplant.

Moral: never bet on an eggplant.

 - Daniel Pinkwater, Borgel (pp.17-18 in 4 Fantastic Novels)

Friday, May 10, 2024

Lunar New Year Love story by Gene Luen Yang and LeUyen Pham

That's a great cover: quietly contemplative, sophisticated, promising depth and connection. It also set my expectations going in the wrong direction, and may do the same for you.

I saw it and thought "that looks great: a romance about adults, comfortable with themselves, not focused on silly drama." But I made up most of that in my own head: this is a YA (or maybe middle-grade) story about a highschool senior, with all that implies.

Oh, it is great. But it's a different sort of great than I expected, so adjusting expectations on the fly was a big shift.

Gene Luen Yang writes and LeUyen Pham draws this story of teen love and confusion, centering on Valentina, who believes her family is cursed to never be lucky in love. She also thinks, as the book begins, that her mother died tragically at her birth, which is only one of several things her well-meaning but clearly conflict-avoidant father has...well, let us say massaged the truth about over the years.

On the other hand, Val does see a manifestation of Saint Valentine - originally a cute, cherubic, friendly cartoon version as a child, then morphing to something creepier once she sees a representation of the historical saint as a young teen - who acts like an imaginary friend and reinforces both her obsession with Valentine's Day and, slightly later, the whole "your family is cursed" thing.

Is he real? In the context of Lunar New Year Love Story, I'd have to say yes. This is a world in which some level of supernatural activity is active - which raises the question of similar manifestations from the devout Catholicism of Val's estranged grandmother, but let's leave that firmly aside, as the book does - and can at least influence living people and make some kinds of binding deals with them.

Specifically, because of that curse, the now-creepy Saint Valentine wants Val to give her heart to him, permanently, for safekeeping, so that she will never love another person and so never have that heart broken. And she basically agrees, which the book treats as binding...if she doesn't find Twuu Wuv within one year from the deal.

(This is the part that's the most high-drama and high-schooly, and the part that was farthest from my hopes for the book. It's also central to the story, and the kind of element that every single reader knows will work out right in the end, because that's how stories like this work. So I guess I just sigh and point to it, knowing that works of art rarely conform to our hopes for them.)

Along the way, Val has a best friend, Bernice, with a very different (but still deeply highschoolish) approach to love, with whom Val is contrasted. Val also falls into performing Chinese-style lion dancing - there's something of an undercurrent here about different kinds of Asian-American communities and traditions, next to each other but mostly staying separate, as with Val's estranged Vietnamese family - and finds a boyfriend in the gorgeous, popular, maybe-not-as-shallow-as-he-seems lead dancer of the troupe. But there is also another boy, the first boy's cousin, who is conflicted and deep and pushes Val away and...every single adult reader of this story knows exactly how this is going to go.

So that's the conflict. Can Val achieve TRUE LOVE, of the kind that will last for all time, break the curse and stop creepy Saint Valentine from taking Val's heart and locking it away forever? And do that before Valentine's Day of her senior year?

Yes. So very highschool. Nobody has true love in highschool, though a hell of a lot of people think they do at the time.

It's a weird experience to deeply enjoy how a story is told while at the same time thinking it's a silly misguided story, reinforcing the wrong stereotypes for an audience that deserves better. I was hoping Love Story would end up saying "looking for True Love at seventeen isn't the point," but, instead, like every other similar story, it says "Look, here is True Love! Marvel at its perfection!"

Paradoxically, I'd recommend this book more for adults than for teens, and even less for for tweens, who I assume is the main audience. You want to have some background, to be familiar with the bullshit - I wouldn't want to put this book in the hands of anyone who would read it uncritically. Because there are no hearts that can be given away permanently, and Love Story still comes down on the side of "there is a thing called True Love, and you can get it with that cute guy at your dancing studio." That is lovely to believe, but raises expectations that teens and tweens should be free from, and is already far too central in popular culture.

Thursday, May 09, 2024

The Divided Earth by Faith Erin Hicks

I somehow spaced out on even knowing this book existed. It was published in 2018, a year after the second book in the trilogy (The Stone Heart) and two years after the first (The Nameless City), exactly when I should have expected it and likely at the center of an impressive promotional campaign. 

I even knew the title, and mentioned it near the end of my post on Stone Heart. So I don't know why it took me five years to remember that The Divided Earth existed, and to finally read it. I can say that my memories of the first two books are a bit thin almost a decade later, so I may largely point you readers (assuming you exist, which you may not) to those earlier posts.

Faith Erin Hicks is an accomplished and supple maker of comics, and she finishes up her trilogy well here. It's in vaguely-fantasy territory, that disputed land where there's no obvious magic, clearly a secondary world that resembles medieval China but isn't. I mean that whether a book like this counts as "fantasy" is disputed, but the series is about a disputed land more centrally: the Nameless City itself - actually a city with more names than it would like, as it has been conquered in turn over and over again by the three major nations it lies at the borders of - is both strategically important and a major hub for trade, and is currently in the mitts of the Dao people.

There was a push to make this city semi-independent, ruled by a council with representatives of all of the local powers, to stop the cycle of conquest and death, in the last book. It moved forward a bit, but is the kind of thing that obviously needs all of the major powers to be on board for...and that's going to be difficult at best.

Divided still mostly focused on the two young protagonists - Dao military scion Kaidu and Nameless street kid Rat - and, since this is a series for young readers, what they do has to be not just important but defining for this city. (And who doesn't like a story about fearless young people running along rooftops, battling evil forces, and pleading for peace? Especially when we know they will be successful in the end?) The city comes briefly under siege here, and there's also some sneaking through tunnels to go along with the rooftop parkour we've had in all three volumes. It's fun and adventurous and somewhat inventive - definitely a genre exercise whose broad outlines are visible from space, but solidly constructed, telling a good story well and keeping its moral mostly implied.

Wednesday, May 08, 2024

Murakami T: The T-Shirts I Love by Haruki Murakami

It must be nice to be a world-famous and -popular writer. You can get nice little additional revenue streams from normal life stuff such as "owning a lot of T-shirts" and "talking to a guy from a magazine."

I kid, slightly: most of Murakami T is a series of essays that Haruki Murakami wrote for the Japanese magazine Popeye between 2018 and 2020, so it is actually work he did. But the impetus for the project was "Hey, you have a lot of T-shirts. Want to write a short essay about a group of them each month?"

Murakami provides an introduction, to explain the whole odd project - apparently his record collection is even more impressive and famous, so he was first interviewed about that for the magazine BRUTUS, and happened to mention there that he'd also accumulated a lot of shirts, so some editor took his shot and got a series of new Murakami work for his magazine. (Shine on, random editor from the company that owns Popeye and BRUTUS; that was a great idea and I hope it got you at least some in-office egoboo.)

The bulk of the book is the eighteen essays from Popeye, presented here in what I think is their original order, along with photographs of the relevant shirts by Yasumoto Ebisu. Last is a pair of interviews, from the beginning and end of the project, conducted by Kunichi Nomura, whom I assume was associated with Popeye in some capacity.

This is light Murkami, but it's still Murakami - along the lines of his introductions and other occasional nonfiction - so the prose has his characteristic tone and concerns and manner, sliding from one idea to something unrelated and keeping that direct, conversational tone. It is obviously a minor, vanity project, but still of interest to Murakami fans, and, maybe, others.

Tuesday, May 07, 2024

Amulet Book Nine: Waverider by Kazu Kibuishi

I still think Kazu Kibuishi is more a pantser than a plotter; Amulet has been the kind of series that keeps adding complications, that has elements that pop in unexpectedly - even in this last volume - that bounces around among semi-separate plotlines as if it's remembering all of the things it still has to do. But Waverider, this ninth book, does end the series, and does wrap up everything, so it gives hope to all of the other pantsers out there - even the ones who have been struggling with series running for longer than the fifteen years Amulet has been - that they, too can land their respective planes.

Amulet is structured like a prose epic fantasy, portal sub-division: three people from the "real world" (mom Karen, tween Emily, younger brother Navin) were transported to a fantasy world, one of them got a talisman of great power, they were separated and rejoined, they made friends and allies and enemies and enemies-into-allies, battled a Dark Lord that tempted the holder of the magical talisman, and so forth. Waverider is the end, so it's the one where the heroes (all of them, even the ones who were sub-villains earlier) finally rejoin and defeat that Dark Lord conclusively, so the three main characters can finally return to their own world and lives.

That makes it sound pretty conventional, and Amulet is pretty conventional. But things are genres for a reason, and Amulet has been a strong genre exercise: well-done, and decent at characterization, and with an engaging, friendly art style. It has been the first big epic fantasy series for an entire generation of readers, the oldest of which are probably only in their late twenties now. There's nothing wrong with doing a genre exercise, particularly if you do it well. Kibuishi did it well: now that he's done, we can see that he didn't run down every idea and sidebar (there's some new elements in this book that feel like either material that would have been expanded if the series had run longer or potential hooks for an eventual sequel), but he kept focus on his important characters and maneuvered them all into the right places for his big ending.

I should probably link back to my posts on the earlier books, for reference: The Stonekeeper, The Stonekeeper's Curse, The Cloud Searchers, The Last Council, Prince of the Elves, Escape from Lucien, Firelight, and Supernova. In the usual epic fantasy way, there were a lot of events to get to this point, and the fans of the series, I'm sure, are still arguing about many of them.

Summing up: it's the end of a big epic fantasy series. No one should start reading with this book. If you want to see what epic fantasy is looking like to a huge swath of young people, Amulet is the place to go - especially if you like your fantasy in comics form. But start with The Stonekeeper.

Monday, May 06, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Great Northern

"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.

This week, let's turn the clock back to 2009 for Houses by Great Northern, a compelling, ominous song that won't quite say what it's being ominous about.

And now
All this time when we walk we won't feel
Put some time in a box it can steal
All this time when we talk its not real its not real not real not real its not real

That "not real" is repeated a lot - call it the central motif of the song, or the thing the singer most wants to emphasize. 

That sounds like denial, doesn't it? No one insists that strongly about something that's clearly true - you only push that hard against something you don't want to admit.

It's another song about something broken, something lost - between the singer and the person she's speaking to, we assume - something to do with their lives and relationships. We can assume whatever we want: the song is crisp but noncommittal.

And there's that great tick-tock drumbeat driving the song forward, dying into the mix and then coming back.

The end begins just as it starts.

Sunday, May 05, 2024

Reviewing the Mail: Week of May 4, 2024

One book this week, the product of a Kickstarter, and it is...

The Bonito City Tragedy by Rick Geary!

Geary has been kickstarting (when that's a verb, does it take the capital letter? oh, the weird usage questions we get these days) books for about a decade, I think. I've backed a bunch of them, I know.

He used to do small-format books on national or global-level murder stories of the past (first exclusively the 19th century, then shifting to mostly the 20th) for various publishers (I think mostly NBM), but the kickstarted books have tended to be smaller, local historical murders - or similarly local stories that are not quite as murder-centric. I won't claim the list is comprehensive, but books I've gotten from Geary since 2014 include The Elwell EnigmaThe True Death of Billy the KidMurder at the Hollywood Hotel (with The Lampoon Years: 1979-1992 and Rick Geary's Book of Murder also at that link), Early Storties: 1977-1988The Story of the Lincoln County WarThe Secret Door at the White HouseChester & Grace: The Adirondack MurderThe Wallace MysteryCarrizozo: An Illustrated History, and Stories from the '90s.

This is another story of death in rural New Mexico - where Geary has lived for the past decade-plus - but I don't know much more than that. But a new Geary story about death and quirky local history is a good thing, so I'm on board. (Let's be honest, if I signed up for the history of his hometown - Carrizozo is the book I'm referring to, and I did enjoy it - I'm probably on board with anything Geary wants to do at this point.)

At the moment, it looks like Geary's regular site and Storenvy pages are down, but I'll put those links in, just in case they come back. The book itself doesn't have an ISBN, so I don't think it will be available through the normal channels.

Saturday, May 04, 2024

Quote of the Week: Roughly My Opinion As Well

"God," said Ghis," is merely a hypothesis. It cannot be reliably confirmed by experimental data one way or the other."

"Therefore...?" prompted Delia.

"Therefore I don't care," said Ghis. Delia sighed.

 - Lavie Tidhar, The Circumference of the World, p.148

Friday, May 03, 2024

The Circumference of the World by Lavie Tidhar

I've enjoyed everything by Lavie Tidhar that I've read: he's an interesting, globalist writer with wide and deep influences and a quirky sensibility. But he's also yet another writer thrilled by the minutia of Golden Age SF, which I'm not as excited by - it's always felt like a hermetic dead end to me, the tedious smugness of an in-group that keeps curling further in.

The Circumference of the World was his new novel last year, a short book told in kaleidoscopic sections, and it is steeped in Golden Age SF. So there are a lot of things about it I loved and appreciated, but it also dives deeply into one of the things I wish modern SF could extricate itself from: the relentless return to the same few moments and ideas and people of the post-war era, and especially that core "atomic power proves we SF fans are right and the world will belong to us!" triumphalism.

You see, Eugene Charles Hartley wrote a novel called Lode Stars in 1961 - or maybe he did. The book has been suppressed since then, or maybe it was only a rumor to begin with. He almost immediately afterwards started a religion fairly closely based on the ideas in Lode Stars - yes, he is yet another Hubbard figure, down to nearly every detail - and became fabulously rich and fabulously detached from the world.

More interestingly, Hartley's religion - and the insights in Lode Stars - seems to be correct. It's a variation of the Simulation Hypothesis: that we are not living "now," in a real world, but are running in a far-future simulation, reliving our original lives for some obscure purpose. It also has a "God" that sits entirely outside the universe - accessible only via information leaked through black holes - and "eaters," which I don't think are the same as God, but also sit outside the universe, in this far-future setting, and consume the minds of those in the simulation.

You can protect yourself from the eaters. There's only one way. You have to read Lode Stars.

All that isn't entirely clear at the beginning of Circumference, which runs through the viewpoints of a young woman from the South Pacific - named after the main character of Lode Stars, but otherwise mostly just a way into the story - and then her mathematician boyfriend, a face-blind rare book dealer, a London-based ex-Russian gangster, the text of Lode Stars, and Hartley himself. It moves quickly, it's full of fine writing and interesting thoughts, it throws out random concepts along the way and has dozens of Easter eggs for fans of classic SF.

But it's a book that, in its essential conception, circles a black hole. That's the metaphor, that's the end of Lode Stars, that's the cosmology of Hartley's religion - that's the whole point. And this is a short book, with a lot of sections and things going on, so it does make the circling exciting and inventive and thrilling...but it's still circling.

I was hoping for a slingshot outward from that black hole, or a 2001-esque dive within it: Circumference doesn't want to do either of those things. It wants to circle; it will circle. It is defined, as the title says, by the circumference, and by that infinitely attractive point, the lode star, at the middle.

I'd recommend Tidhar books like the multifarious Central Station or the muscular Violent Century or the deeply weird Escapement before this one, unless you are a huge fan of Golden Age SF and changes rung on those ideas. But it's still Tidhar; it's still full of wonders and fascination.