Sunday, June 30, 2024

Quote of the Hour: Broken But Not Up

Hector takes her hand to show everyone they're together, a habit she now wishes she hadn't encouraged. It's not his fault. Again, she wants to defend him against her newfound cruelty. He's not the one who's changed. Even in this she's selfish. She wants to believe what's happened has nothing to do with him.

 - Stewart O'Nan, Ocean State, p.44

Quote of the Hour: I'll Do Anything for Crime, But I Won't Do That

I had never begged in my life, and this was the hardest thing for me to stomach when I first went on The Road. I had absurd notions about begging. My philosophy, up to that time, was that it was finer to steal than to beg; and that robbery was finer still because the risk and the penalty were proportionately greater. As an oyster pirate I had already earned convictions at the hands of justice, which, if I had tried to serve them, would have required a thousand years in state's prison. To rob was manly; to beg was sordid and despicable. But I developed in the days to come all right, all right, till I came to look upon begging as a joyous prank, a game of wits, a nerve-exerciser.

 - Jack London, The Road, p.278 in Novels and Social Writings

Quote of the Hour: "Dames" Is Right Out

Morty meticulously refers to all youngish women as "heads," which has the same meaning as "broads" or "dolls" but is newer; he does not want his conversation to sound archaic.

 - A.J. Liebling, "The Jollity Building," in The Jollity Building (p.435 in The Sweet Science and Other Writings)

Quote of the Hour: Unspeakable

Barrett stood at the window of his study with his hands in his pockets, looking thoughtfully at the football field. Now and then he whistled. That was to show that he was very much at his ease. He whistled a popular melody of the day three times as slowly as its talented composer had originally intended it to be whistled, and in a strange minor key. Some people, when offended, invariably whistle in this manner, and these are just the people with whom, if you happen to share a study with them, it is rash to have differences of opinion. Reade, who was deep in a book - though not so deep as he would have liked the casual observer to fancy him to be - would have given much to stop Barrett's musical experiments. To ask him to stop in so many words was, of course, impossible. Offended dignity must draw the line somewhere. That is one of the curious results of a polite education. When two gentlemen of Hoxton or the Borough have a misunderstanding, they address one another with even more freedom than is their usual custom. When one member of a public school falls out with another member, his politeness in dealing with him becomes so Chesterfieldian, that one cannot help being afraid that he will sustain a strain from which he will never recover.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, The Pothunters, p.62

Quote of the Hour: Credo

Each of us finds his way, his place; we rattle around the universe until everything fits, this is life; this is science, or something better than science.

 - Gene Wolfe, "V.R.T.," p.169 in The Fifth Head of Cerberus

Quote of the Hour: Time Enough

Five years can pass quickly, though each day is self-contained and whole and seems to last forever. Even for us time is a mystery, though we live in the well where time trickles to a crawl and, at the bottom, at last fractures.

 - Lavie Tidhar, The Circumference of the World, p.20

Quote of the Hour: Three Times

We went to Burger-Chief, which was introducing a new Swiss-steak sandwich. Uncle Mel had read an advertisement in the newspaper and wanted to try it. It was close to uneatable. It was sort of a toy steak. It looked like a piece of meat, but I couldn't tell what it was. It was on a toy roll that looked like a real roll with a crust and little seeds, but it was all stamped from one piece of something or other. Uncle Mel didn't like the steak sandwich either. He only ate three. He says you can never be sure if you like something until you've had it three times.

 - Daniel Pinkwater, Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario, p. 236 in 4 Fantastic Novels

Quote of the Hour: A Blue Streak

They [the American 'tramps royal'] were all cheerful, facing things with the pluck which is their chief characteristic and which seems never to desert them, withal they were cursing the country with lurid metaphors quite refreshing after a month of unimaginative, monotonous Cockney swearing. The Cockney has one oath, and one oath only, the most indecent in the language, which he uses on any and every occasion. Far different is the luminous and varied Western swearing, which runs to blasphemy rather than indecency. And, after all, since men will swear, I think I prefer blasphemy to indecency; there is an audacity about it, an adventurousness and defiance that is far finer than sheer filthiness.

 - Jack London, The People of the Abyss (p.76 in Library of America Novels & Social Writings)

Quote of the Hour: First-Timers' Luck

Experienced professional dragonslayers - one immediately thinks of Ricky Wurmtoter, former head of pest control at J.W. Wells, or the legendary Kurt Lundqvist, thanks to whose efforts Seattle is now 77 per cent dragon-free - know the risks, the moves and the distressingly unfavorable chances of survival. Accordingly, they duck, weave, shuffle their feet, wait for an opening, feint, drop into an extended high guard, trip over something and get torched or eaten. Maurice, who had no idea what he was doing, neatly avoided all these pitfalls. He marched up to the dragon, yelled "Bastard!" at it at the top of his voice, and swung wildly with the breadknife. The dragon, quite reasonably anticipating a transition from high fifth to low third coupled with a defensive back-foot traverse, reared up and lurched to its right, collided with Maurice's breadknife and neatly cut its own throat.

 - Tom Holt, When It's a Jar, pp.37-38

Quote of the Hour: Either That Boulevard Goes Or I Do

The Boulevard Raspail always made dull riding. It was like a certain stretch on the P.L.M. between Fontainebleau and Montereau that always made me feel bored and dead and dull until it was over. I suppose it is some association of ideas that makes those dead places in a journey. There are other streets in Paris as ugly as the Boulevard Raspail. It is a street I do not mind walking down at all. But I cannot stand to ride along it. Perhaps I read something about it once. That was the way Robert Cohn was about all of Paris. I wondered where Cohn got that incapacity to enjoy Paris. Possibly from Mencken. Mencken hates Paris, I believe. So many young men get their likes and dislikes from Mencken.

 - Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, pp.48-29

Quote of the Hour: Talents

'Who asked you?' It was the smaller of the Marvelous Murphys who spoke. He was an unpleasant youth, snub-nosed and spotty. Still, he could balance himself with one hand on an inverted ginger-ale bottle while revolving a barrel on the soles of his feet. There is good in all of us.

 - P. G. Wodehouse, The Adventures of Sally, p.13

Quote of the Hour: The Human Factor

Since buyers can never understand all the technical issues that distinguish one software package from its "me too" competitor, at some point the deciding factor shifts to some entirely different proxy variable. That proxy is the rep. Which rep would you rather do business with? Which rep would you rather have chatting you up every month, taking you to lunch, trouble shooting your system, and bothering your staff?

 - Po Bronson, The Nudist on the Last Shift, p.144

Quote of the Hour: The Suspiciously Specific Denial

By means of an ingenious series of strategically deployed denials of the most exciting and exotic things, he was able to create the myth that he was a psychic, mystic, telepathic, fey, clairvoyant, psychosassic vampire bat.

What did "psychosassic" mean?

It was his own word and he vigorously denied that it meant anything at all.

 - Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, p.38

Quote of the Hour: One and a Half Uncles, By Weight

It was the photograph of an elderly man in a bathing suit; an elderly man who, a glance was enough to tell, had been overdoing it on the starchy foods since early childhood; an elderly man so rotund, so obese, so bulging in every direction that Shakespeare, had he beheld him would have muttered to himself 'Upon what meat doth this our Horace feed that he is grown so great?' One wondered how any bathing suit built by human hands could contain so stupendous an amount of uncle without parting at the seams. In the letter he had written to Oofy announcing his arrival in England Horace Protter had spoken of coming home to lay his bones in the old country. There was nothing in the snapshot to suggest that he had any bones.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, "The Fat of the Land," p.12 in A Few Quick Ones

Quote of the Week: Lives That Matter

Message of Lord Jaiko Jaikoska, Chairman of the Executive Board, to the Valhalla General Legislative Assembly, Valhalla, Tau Gemini, August 9, 1028:

I urge you not to endorse this sinister measure. Humanity many times has had sad experience of superpowerful police forces... As soon as (the police) slip out from under the firm thumb of a suspicious local tribune, they become arbitrary, merciless, a law unto themselves. They think no more of justice, but only of establishing themselves as a privileged and envied elite. They mistake the attitude of natural caution and uncertainty of the civilian population as admiration and respect, and presently they start to swagger back and forth, jingling their weapons in megalomaniac euphoria. People thereupon become not masters, but servants. Such a police force becomes merely an aggregate of uniformed criminals, the more baneful in that their position is unchallenged and sanctioned by law. The police mentality cannot regard a human being in terms other than as an item or object to be processed as expediently as possible. Public convenience or dignity means nothing: police prerogatives assume the status of divine law. Submissiveness is demanded. If a police officer kills a civilian, it is a regrettable circumstance: the officer was possibly overzealous. If a civilian kills a police officer all hell breaks loose. The police foam at the mouth. All other business comes to a standstill until the perpetrator of this most dastardly act is found out. Inevitably, when apprehended, he is beaten or otherwise tortured for his intolerable presumption.

 - Jack Vance, The Star King (p.32-33 in The Demon Princes, Vol. 1 omnibus)

Quote of the Hour: Risk Assessment

You're not fine, Ratthi, for fuck's sake. (For however many corporate standard years, all I got from humans was "Run in there no matter how likely you are to get blown to tiny pieces when a quiet tactical approach has a higher percentage of success" and now it's "Oh no we're fine, we can hang out in this objectively terrifying immediately hazardous situation for however long.")

(I'm just saying that it would be nice for the humans to give me a realistic situation report for once.)

(Dr. Bharadwaj says even good change is stressful.)

 - Martha Wells, System Collapse, p.5

Quote of the Hour: Hanging Together

"I fear you commit suicide."

"There are many ways of committing suicide," said Blackwell. "One of them is sitting still, and waiting for a tyrant to kill you."

 - Walter Jon Williams, Quillifer the Knight, p.336

Quote of the Hour: We've All Had Mornings Like This

By day the sun cast a wan maroon gloom across the land: by night all was dark and still, with only a few pale stars to post the old constellations. Time went at a languid pace, without purpose or urgency, and folk made few long-range plans.

 - Jack Vance, the opening of "Fader's Waft," second of three stories in Rhialto the Marvelous, p.609 in the Tales of the Dying Earth omnibus

Quote of the Hour: The Great Beyond

I had forgotten that there are things called horizons. Queen is a great bubble: from Osman Tower, dust permitting, you can see all the way to the edge of the city in any direction. You see the whole of the world. On the surface, you are on the outside of a ball. And not a very big ball at that. I feel I'm about to fall over and slide away with every step. This is Queen turned inside out. There are no walls to the world.

 - Ian McDonald, The Menace from Farside, p.60

Quote of the Hour: And Yet Still the Best Kind of Concerted Action

There was, I sensed, a flaw in our strategy: If you take over a restaurant as an act of protest and then order dinner in the restaurant, what you have actually done is gone to the restaurant and had dinner, since as restaurant is, by definition, always occupied, by its diners. Having come to say that you just won't take it anymore, you have to add sheepishly that you will take it, au point and with béarnaise sauce. It was as if at the Boston Tea Party the patriots had boarded the ship, bought up all of the boxes of tea, and then brewed them.

 - Adam Gopnik, "The Balzar Wars," p.236 in Paris to the Moon

Quote of the Hour: You Can't Miss It

New York is a large city conveniently situated on the edge of America, so that you step off the liner right on to it without an effort. You can't lose your way. You got out of a barn and down some stairs, and there you are, right in among it. The only possible objection any reasonable chappie could find to the place is that they loose you into it from the boat at such an ungodly hour.

 - P.G. Wodehouse, "Extricating Young Gussie," (p.5 in Enter Jeeves)

Quote of the Hour: Ain't Nohow Permanent

"I can't tell if you're serious or not," said the driver.

"I won't know myself until I find out whether life is serious or not," said Trout. "It's dangerous, I know, and it can hurt a lot. That doesn't necessarily mean it's serious, too."

 - Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions (p.568 in Novels & Stories, 1963-1973)

Quote of the Hour: I Will Decline, Alas!

In fact, Elves appear to have deteriorated generally since the coming of humans. If you meet Elves, expect to have to listen for hours while they tell you about this - many Elves are great bores on the subject - and about what glories they were in ancient days. They will intersperse their account with nostalgic ditties (songs of aching beauty) and conclude by telling you how great numbers of Elves have become so wearied with the thinning of the old golden wonders that they have all departed, departed into the West. This is correct, provided you take it with the understanding that Elves do not say anything quite straight. Many Elves have indeed gone west, to Minnesota and thence to California, and finally to Arizona, where they have great fun wearing punk clothes and riding motorbikes.

 - Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, pp.62-3

Quote of the Hour: Sadly True

Anything done more than twice becomes an immemorial tradition, and so it's now time for the twice-yearly run of Quote of the Hour.

I pull too many of these quotes from the books I read to use them up in the normal weekly pace, and so this is how I push them out into the world. See the previous installments from December 31, 2022, and July 2, 2023, and December 321, 2023.
 "Old age. I used to think old age was a kind of feather bed you gradually sank down into, but it's not. It's a goddam stone wall you butt your head into till it cracks."

 - Dawn Powell, The Locusts Have No King, (p. 411 in Novels 1944-1962)

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Quote of the Week: Pull the Bandaid Off

We feared drama but we were addicted to it too. Because we were young, we thought we were strong. We thought we were hardened. We wanted the bad thing to happen fast, for the painful moments to be over so we could go on with our normal, boring lives.

 - Stewart O'Nan, Ocean State, p.60

Friday, June 28, 2024

Steps by Jerzy Kosinski

So I've been working on my own derivative version of the Bechdel Test. It's been lurking in the back of my mind, as I've been reading older books by men. I'm sure someone else - probably a woman; men like me take a lot more obviousness to notice sexism than women do - has already created something similar, probably better. But this is where I've gotten to.

There are two kinds of books by men: those in which women are people, and those in which they're not. I don't claim to have made any complete survey of the literature, but the 20th century seems to be full of books of the second kind, which is somewhat disturbing. (My impression is that the 19th was largely the other way.)

This crystalized in my mind - after several Gene Wolfe books recently, among others - when reading the 1968 experimental novel Steps by Jerzy Kosinski, from what I'm coming to think of the core period where a whole lot of men just gave up entirely on the idea of "understanding women." (As if that was a coherent activity to begin with, that "women" were a single thing one could understand - that's part of the "not seeing them as people" idea I'm talking about.)

This isn't a novel of character anyway, so it might not be fair. But the man in Steps is a clear, precise, defined character - my guess, closely modeled on his author. So the fact that the women in it are all cyphers and sex objects and plot tokens is very noticeable. (They might all be supposed to be one woman, as the man is one man. But, since they're none of them defined enough to be anyone, that's a moot point.)

Steps is a novel by courtesy. It's barely long enough to qualify under most definitions - 148 pages in the edition I read. It has no named people in it. It has no consistent narrative or plot. It does have a first-person narrator, but it's not possible that the same person is the "I" of every single section. (For large clumps, here and there - yes.) But it is prose, it is fiction, it is published between two covers - ergo, we can call it a novel.

It's made up of many - dozens - of short sections, the vast majority of them narrated by a first-person narrator, doing different things in different places. They all seem to be mid-century - there's nothing historical - and are somewhat more European-flavored than American, though that's a minor point. It might all be supposed to be set in the same country, but it doesn't have to be. There is a Party that is important in this country, or one of the countries, and it is clearly Soviet in its flavor, postwar rather than the darker more brutal interwar era. (I note here that Kosinski was Polish, born in 1933, and that he emigrated to the USA in 1957, as a young man, and never returned.)

The sections are varied, but the man finds himself in dangerous or uncomfortable situations regularly. He has little power most of the time...though he generally has power over women.

It's the kind of book that gets called a "meditation" or "vision" - that's lit-speak for "nothing consistent." The reader has to assemble any larger meaning himself. 

I found the writing compelling, and the vision of this man interesting. But, at the same time, the focus on sex forced me to realize that the women, or woman, in Steps is not a person - just an element of the plot, or an idea, or a sketch of "woman" for rhetorical purposes. And I'm finding that less and less acceptable, the more I notice it. So that ended up being my major takeaway from Steps: that women are people, and that books should reflect that. It seems a minor point, but it's rarer than I would like.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Fall Through by Nate Powell

This book is already dancing about architecture. So I worry that anything I might say would compound that - painting a picture of dancing about architecture. But here I am, and here I go.

Fall Through is Nate Powell's new graphic novel this year: it has what I think of as his trademark atmospheric, black-background, swirling pages and vaguely creepy, unexplained and deeply embedded fantasy elements. I found myself resisting it more than some of his earlier books: as always, I can only say how I reacted, and note that it's as likely to have been me as the book.

This is the story of a punk band, Diamond Mine. They formed in 1994, recorded a 7", did a bunch of touring, had a following. They lived together in a house, all seemingly in their early twenties. They were part of a wider punk scene across the Midwest and South, with clusters of more-or-less angry, more-or-less young people in every mid-sized town or larger, putting on mostly illegal shows in fields or backyards or wherever and running away when the cops came to break it up. None of that paid - if you actually made gas money, you were way ahead.

Punk, you know?

Jody was one of the four members of the band. She played bass and sang, at least some of the time. She wasn't the leader and songwriter: that was Diana. She wasn't the flashy guitarist: that was Napoleon. She wasn't the quiet, solid-as-a-rock drummer: that was Steff. But she's our viewpoint character.

Fall Through takes place mostly in 1994. But we also see Jody, seeming the same age, or just a few years younger, in 1978, back in what Gen X me thinks of as the actual age of punk. (Punk was a movement. It happened, and ended, like every other movement. Even early '80s hardcore was something else. Everything later was revivals and different things, just like "rockabilly" now isn't what it meant in the '50s.)

How did Jody get from being 18ish in 1978 to being 23ish in 1994? Well, that's the story here.

Most of the book is about a tour. It's the summer of 1994, and the four members of Diamond Mine are in a van, going from town to town to play shows with local acts - again, mostly not legally, and the only way they get paid is if they sell some merch.  Like any tour, it seems to be endless, days stretching on and on, each one like the last. Like it never began and will never end, just a single day, over and over again.

And that may be true. Diana wrote a song - "Fall Through" - and when Diamond Mine plays it the right way, at the climax of a show, they seem to change worlds or times or something. The flap copy calls it "transported to alternate worlds in which they've never existed but their band's legend has." I don't know about that: it all seems to still be 1994, and they have tour dates day after day, which implies their band exists and is known.

Really, it feels like a reset. Maybe different worlds, but not that different from each other. Certainly not the wild swings in time and space the description implies. All still that same tour, the same van, rambling through mid-America during the summer of 1994. More punk shows: one every night, potentially forever. Like August keeps resetting - this time St. Louis, the next time Louisville.

Diana seems to be doing this on purpose. Once there's a frightening figure - coming out of a surrounding cornfield, like a horror movie, during their set - that she clearly triggers the song, the spell to get away from. And it's taken a while, but the rest of the band knows something is wrong.

There are confrontations, but it's all in vague language - "moving forward," "sticking together," that kind of thing. I expect punks to be louder, more demanding - to swear a lot more, for one thing. (I guess these are well-behaved, Southern, second generation punks.)

So the book never explains what's happening or why. They talk around it a few times, but that's all. There's never even a "this band is going to break up" fight or possibility or option: it's as if they're all locked into this, no matter what they want or choose.

The situation does get resolved in the end, and we do circle back to 1978...but the ways and hows of it frustrated me. It's all thematically appropriate, but not dramatically. The plot doesn't go anywhere, the actions of the characters aren't really important to the ending. It's a book about an endless punk tour, about community and scene, rather than being a story about these things that happened to these people.

We never learn why this happened. We never learn how this song works. We never learn who that mysterious figure was, if he was actually chasing them, or anything. In the end, it all doesn't matter, all those explanations are beside the point Powell wants to make. But I was here to find out all those things, and I don't have any particular nostalgia for "wasn't it awesome to be young and in a punk band?"

So I found this book incredibly frustrating: it avoided all of the things I wanted to know and focused entirely on things I found vague and trite. It's lovely and thoughtful: Powell draws as well as ever and his people are real and precise. They just all waffle on about the least interesting things, and then go on to play another show as if none of that happened, which makes very little sense to me.

Your mileage may vary. If you've ever been in a band, particularly. And Powell is one of our best, so I won't ignore the fact that I might have missed something major. But the Fall Through I read was not the book I was hoping for.

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Ocean State by Stewart O'Nan

Sometimes one of your favorite writers has a book where you love a lot of the writing, love the voices, really appreciate the craft...but still think it's a smaller, less-impressive take on things that writer has done before.

That's where I am today with Stewart O'Nan's 2022 novel Ocean State. He's a fine writer, who does very different things - all vaguely in the literary-novel space, about mostly normal people in a normal world (with a few exceptions) each book. Most recently, I've seen two historicals: West of Sunset, the story of F. Scott Fitzgerald's last days in Hollywood, and City of Secrets, the story of a Jewish arguably-terrorist in 1945 Jerusalem.

Ocean State, though, reminds me a lot of O'Nan's The Speed Queen, another novel about a murder that starts in the first person with a confession. It also has elements reminiscent of his The Night Country, about teens around Halloween and horrific doings. And, not to give anything away, but I felt that Ocean State has a quieter, flatter ending than it deserved, a slow letting out of tension and flattening of affect when I wanted O'Nan to be heightening affect.

This one starts strongly, as O'Nan often does:

When I was in eighth grade my sister helped kill another girl.

That's Marie, one of the four viewpoint characters. We get her in first person a few times throughout the book, particularly to open the novel and then again to close it.

All four viewpoints are seen in third person in the bulk of the book, taking turns. There's Marie, her mother Carol, her older sister Angel, and Birdy - the girl that Angel "helped kill."

Their voices are crisp and believable. I dog-eared a bunch of quotes; I usually do that with O'Nan. They inhabit a solid, complex world: working-class Rhode Island, high school and work and the minutia of everyday life. Angel and Birdy are dating the same boy, the rich player Myles - Angel officially, Birdy secretly.

(And how perfect is "Myles" with the Y as a name for that character? O'Nan is always really good at signifiers like that, at illuminating character though small moments and minor details.)

We obviously know from the first line what will happen, and we see it happen. It happens later in the novel than I expected, and more offscreen than I expected. 

I liked all of the stories - all four of the viewpoint characters are strong - without, in the end, thinking that they added up to the same novel. This is a short book, and it's more diffuse than it could be. Maybe I wanted a two-hander, just Angel and Birdy - maybe with something like the afterlife narrator of Night Country. Maybe I wanted a pure first-person account from Marie, what she saw at the time and what she realized later. Either of those, I think, could have been more focused than the four-viewpoint version. This almost feels like four intertwined but separate novellas about the same event, not all of which get to have a climax and dénouement.

But a novel is a long piece of prose with something wrong with it. What's wrong with Ocean State is a little annoying, a little disappointing in the end. But what's right with it is still major and impressive. I still recommend reading O'Nan, but I'd go to Night Country or Speed Queen before this one.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes

It's not often that a syndicate gets praise for how they handle the transition on a legacy comic. This is the biggest example I can think of, and one of the biggest transitions in decades. By comparison, the new Flash Gordon artist this year is more typical: breathing new life into a beloved old feature by doing basically the same thing, just with more zip and energy.

Olivia Jaimes wasn't doing the same thing with Nancy in 2018. What was once a finely tuned engine of precisely drawn gags by Ernie Bushmiller had devolved into a bland collection of glurge, drawn by Guy Gilchrist as the demented spawn of Precious Moments and Art Frahm. But Nancy had been through transitions before: it's easy to forget that Bushmiller himself took over a strip then called Fritzi Ritz in 1925, added Nancy as a character, and shifted the whole strip based on what he wanted to do and what the audience wanted to see.

Jaimes - even today, her actual identity is a closely guarded secret; all that's publicly known is that she had a webcomic before Nancy, is female, and is believed to be relatively young - looked backwards to Bushmiller in some things, like her fondness for meta gags and references to "the cartoonist." She also dragged Nancy entirely into the modern world, something the very backward-looking Gilchrist had no interest in doing.

The syndicate seems to be pitching Nancy these days to actual kids, which is a major change from the last three or four decades. I don't know how many actual eight-year-olds identify with Nancy - maybe, she's prickly and demanding and self-centered and sure of her own righteousness like so many real-world kids of that age - but I guess that's working for them.

This book - just called Nancy - came out less than a year after Jaimes started the strip, back in 2019. I don't know if it's her complete first six months, but it's something like that: this is how it started, what the big transition looked like from the other side. Compared to the work Jaimes is doing on the strip now - more than five years later - it's simpler, starker in its drawing and more in-your-face Internet-meme-y in its gags, than the more organic, story-driven work she's doing now.

I miss some of that anything-can-happen atmosphere of the early Jaimes years: it felt a bit more Bushmillerian then, since he was always a cartoonist who would draw absolutely anything in service of the best gag he had for that day. But this book is a good record of those days: a somewhat blockier Nancy and Sluggo, their eyes bigger and less expressive, their clothes more templated and old-fashioned, their dialogue more aggressively mentioning newer technology.

Even if you didn't catch "Sluggo Is Lit" the first time around, check this out if you like smart gag cartoons. Nancy was always a great engine for them, and Jaimes tuned that engine back up and got it running beautifully.

Monday, June 24, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Jenny Lewis

"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 seem to be using a lot of obscure songs in this series - well, this one isn't. It was a single only a few years ago, by a major artist, and many of you will already be familiar with it. (I think. I hope. The world of music is so fragmented and separated these days that it can be hard to say what anyone has heard, or knows.)

This week, it's Heads Gonna Roll by Jenny Lewis, a storytelling song about all of our inevitable deaths, and related things.

There are three verses. They're all addressed to someone - I have no idea if it's the same someone each time. I think so; that would make sense - but songs can mean many things, can be structured many ways.

Each verse is about the singer doing something, with different people, different places - you can think of them as moments from a jet-setting life, I suppose, but they're vague and separate enough that it doesn't come across that way. And then we hit the chorus, which feels like it's on a different level, more serious and stark:

Heads gonna roll, baby
Everybody's gotta pay that toll and maybe
After all is said and done
We'll all be skulls
Heads gonna roll

Whose heads? Why? Lewis isn't going to say, but I think it's all heads. All of us: her, the man she's singing to, the people in each verse, random people everywhere. It's not "heads gonna roll" in the usual active sense - that someone is going to do something to cause mayhem - but in the inevitable, Memento Mori sense.

It's a slow song, but not a dirge. It celebrates life, I guess, in its odd way, with its odd details from Lewis's life. It's a song that says "here's some things I did, and something about how they made me feel. I want to remember that now, since I'll be dead someday." And that's worth remembering, worth being part of.

Because the same is true for every one of us.

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Quote of the Week: Learning Experiences

We had been on safari for a week, or maybe it was ten days - or only five. It was hard to say how long we had been gone. Things were going better than I could have hoped. We had had any number of adventures - and there had been seemingly endless hours of just being quiet and enjoying wherever we happened to be. I had been chased by a spitting cobra, which put to rest the idea I'd always had that a snake will only attack you if you bother it.

 - Daniel Pinkwater, The Worms of Kukumlima, p.453 in 4 Fantastic Novels

Friday, June 21, 2024

Hypercapitalism by Larry Gonick and Tim Kasser

You know if you want to read this book from the title. Maybe somewhat from the author, too: Gonick has been making non-fiction comics, most famously the Cartoon History of series, for forty-some years, in a caption-filled, backed-up-by-references style that crams a lot of facts and details into interesting pages.

Gonick tends to work with collaborators on his more topic-specific books, so this time out he's partnered with psychologist and academic Tim Kasser to tell the story of the modern American economy in Hypercapitalism: The Modern Economy, Its Values, and How to Change Them.

That last bit is the part that will attract or drive away people the most, of course. There's a whole host of libertarian techbros who think capitalism at its more rapacious is just perfect, and wouldn't want to change anything. (They'll likely change their minds, if they live long enough and get battered by life enough - but many such bros start off on Third Base and never do get battered by life; that's how they became such bros to begin with.)

Gonick's books tend to have a narrator figure: in this case it's a version of Kasser, our subject-matter expert, who walks through all of the concepts and structures here. They start off with the basics of capitalism - producers, consumers, profit, labor, competition, work - and then immediately get into the more modern additions, starting with the "person" of the corporation.

Like all of Gonick's books, it's in something that resembles comics, but is much denser informationally. Every page has blocks of seemingly hand-lettered text and a few scattered panels. It's a model that's remarkably good for getting across fairly complex topics and ideas somewhat quickly and at getting into the depths and complexities of its ideas without just skimming the surface.

Again, if you think corporations are an uniformly good thing, you will hate this book. Kasser and Gonick are mildly lefty, and, like so many pesky lefties, they have facts and data and research on their sides, to show how unbridled capitalism has been a bad thing for human beings and that bridles are common in various places all over the world and can be implemented wherever there is the political will to do so.

I think this is still Gonick's most recent book, even though it's from 2018. I like the way he organizes information, and still have hopes he's working on some random history book now that will pop up unexpectedly. He's like no one else in American comics, and his work is a real treasure: deep and thoughtful and well-researched and always aiming back to its sources. This is another fine book in that tradition, even if it is a somewhat more controversial topic.

(Though I do hate the fact that "we should improve society, somewhat" is considered controversial in my country these days. It's a sad world we live in.)

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Time Under Tension by M.S. Harkness

How do any of us choose the next book to read? Looking at a big list of possibilities - all things you don't know well, all things new and different - what sparks the thought "that one"?

This time, it was hair.

On the cover of Time Under Tension, her major 2023 graphic memoir, creator M.S. Harkness draws her hair as a giant, swoopy, structural thing - almost a separate, solid object, like a shark's fin. That said to me "this is a creator who is comfortable with caricature, who gets that cartooning is how to put complicated ideas down on the page. She's going to be interesting to read on a craft and structure level."

I don't want to say "I was right." Let's say I accurately noticed some clear strengths in Harkness's immediate, uncompromising work. Let's say that she both has the drawing and page-layout chops to tell a difficult story well, and both the material in her own life and the mental strength to turn that into art to work from. Let's say I was not disappointed.

This is autobiographical: I assume it's true as much as any memoir is, that some characters may be somewhat fictionalized or events moved in time or dialogue reconstructed to work better on the page. It feels real. Harkness has an immediacy, in her bold lines and her in-your-face storytelling, that tells the reader she is not fucking around here.

We open just before her art-school graduation, in what turns out to be an extended prologue that jumps back and forth in time during that taut moment of almost that is the month before that big day. All of the work is done; the group show is being hung. Harkness knows she will graduate. There's a moment where a teacher bluntly tells her "I had to keep everyone else from failing. I was never really worried about you. Your art career or'll be fine."

This section sets up the tensions and issues Harkness will be working through during the bulk of the book, rolling out over most of the next year.

And, no matter what that art professor thought, she is not fine.

She's organized, focused, driven. She has a plan and multiple goals. She's working on her first graphic novel and studying to become a personal trainer. She has a sympathetic fellow-artist roommate as a support system, and is plugged into the larger comics world.

She's also doing random one-off sex-work jobs to plug holes in her budget. The book description says she's also selling weed for the same purpose, but we really don't see that in the story. She has a messy relationship with an up-and-coming MMA fighter - she is, or was, his dealer, and a fuck-buddy for this guy who already has a "girlfriend." She wants to be more to him than he's willing to give, and he keeps coming back but is at least honest about what's going on.

Behind all that is a horrible childhood: a sexually abusive father about to get out of prison and reaching out through some kind of reparations program to make an "apology" she wants nothing to do with. A mother who means well but who Harkness sees as weak and doesn't have much in common with.

I don't want to psychoanalyze her, especially based on her own presentation. But there's clearly trauma there that she's still trying to get away from, and a complex nexus of physicality: working out herself, helping other people's bodies get strong as a trainer, the random paid sex, the toll on arms and back from hunching over a drawing board. Time Under Tension isn't really about all of those physical demands on her body, and how they intersect with each other, but I wouldn't be surprised if her next book was - or the book after that. 

Harkness seeks out therapists, which doesn't go well. She knows she's driven and goal-focused, but feels like she's not connecting with people: they're all just roles in this march forward, each one just a piece of one of her projects.

She has to work it out herself, the same way she does everything. More work, more pushing forward, one day at a time.

In the way of comics, it may be telling the story of a few years ago: I see that Harkness is now thirty-one. Time Under Tension was Harkness's third book; the first two were also comics memoirs. She's said that she intends to do five books in this "series." But this one stands alone: it tells a full story brilliantly, with an unblinking eye on her own life and problems.

And her hair is magnificent. Harkness has a stark style with strategically deployed spots of black, and her hair is the most consistent large black element on most of these pages, drawing the eye to its complexity and unruliness. I wonder if we will see that hair settle down in future books, as Harkness moves forward in life and gets her demons more under control. I hope so. I'd love to see it.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Worms of Kukumlima by Daniel Pinkwater

OK, you know I'm a big Pinkwater fan, and you might have noticed that I'm re-reading the books in his 2000 omnibus 4 Fantastic Novels - first Borgel and then Yobgorgel. (Those books are completely unrelated, despite the similarity of names, with Yobgorgel coming thirteen years earlier.)

The third book in that omnibus is the 1981 novel The Worms of Kukumlima, and - assuming you've read the title of this post- you know it's time for that one now. 

As usual with a Pinkwater book, it's told in the first person by a smart, observant boy - in this case, Ronald Donald Almondotter, spending the summer working for his grandfather Seumas Finneganstein at the latter's World Famous Salami Snap Company. (Which itself is a somewhat typical Pinkwater thing: a famously successful business, based on a quirky little doohickey - in this case, the metal pieces that holds the end of a salami together - and run by its goofy inventor with a tiny handful of other people.)

Finneganstein was an explorer in his youth, and his old compatriot Sir Charles Pelicanstein shows up one day, urging Finneganstein to join him on an expedition to find the fabled titular intelligent worms.

In a Pinkwater novel, a crazy idea is a good idea, so they set off for Africa to find those worms, flying with an as-goofy-as-expected air cargo outfit and picking up a couple of equally oddball drivers/guides once they hit Nairobi. Unfortunately, Kukumlima is a place you can only find if you're completely, utterly lost, so the fact that these guides are experts is actually a problem. But, eventually, they all figure out a way to travel randomly, get lost, and are herded by elephants into a gigantic crater in the middle of nowhere.

They do meet the worms, who are not quite as expected. The end of the novel involves our heroes needing to get away from the worms, which of course they also do.

Worms is a Pinkwater novel: it's goofy, and proceeds in a loose, almost aimless way, its plot wandering like the expedition whose story it tells. This isn't one of my very favorite Pinkwater books - it doesn't have as many bits of wordplay or silly concepts as some of his other books, and the worms are a bit un-Pinkwaterly evil - but it's a solid Pinkwater outing from fairly early in his career, and I'm not going to say anything negative about it. The closest I'll come is what I just said: he has other books that are even better and more fun than this. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Proxy Mom: My Experience with Portpartum Depression by Sophie Adriansen & Mathou

Babies are hard. I think everyone knows that intellectually, but maybe not emotionally. My own first child was a needy, demanding, unhappy baby - I don't want to claim too much; this was a quarter-century ago, and I wasn't the main caregiver, either - so I have some insight but nothing like expertise.

The mother in Proxy Mom: My Experience with Postpartum Depression has a fairly typical, average baby: no more needy than most, no specific problems, nothing out of the ordinary. Just crying every hour or few hours, all day every day, needing something that's often not clear. Just an ordinarily demanding, life-altering baby, on top of everything the pregnancy and birth already did to her body.

This graphic novel is loosely a memoir - writer Sophie Adriansen and artist Mathou both lived through versions of this story, the same year, each having a first baby with a man who already had older children. And, from the story, I guess they both had problems attaching, with feeling "motherly," at least at first - that's a lot more common than people realize.

A baby is a wrinkled, red-faced, crying lump, capable only of wanting things. That's not inherently lovable. It takes a lot of hormones hitting just the right way to forge that connection, and sometimes it takes quite a while - sometimes it fizzles at first.

Sometimes, like with Marietta in this story, it's more overwhelming and painful than wonderful and special. And the realization that life is not going to be "like before, but with a baby" but instead "completely different, in ways you didn't expect" is frightening and unnerving: there's now this tiny person that is utterly dependent on you for everything, needy in a way no other human being has been for you before.

This is the story of about those first six months, the toughest time, for Marietta and her husband Chuck and baby Zoe. How she was overwhelmed by the pain at first, in the hospital, after a tough labor and pain during breastfeeding. How Chuck was the experienced one - but not the one whose body was battered by the birth, and not the one there all day every day with tiny needy Zoe. How she wanted that deep connection with her baby, but it wasn't there at first - how she found it, how she got there in the end.

There are no huge problems. This is not the kind of memoir subtitled "how I got through This Horrible Thing and it made me a better person." Birth is natural. Babies are natural. Crying babies and post-partum pain and being overwhelmed are entirely natural. It's huge for the woman going through it. It feels too big too handle: being responsible, every second of every day, for another person, a person who can do nothing at all for herself.

But Marietta made it through. She didn't get back "her old life, but with a baby" - she got back a new life, with a lot of the pieces of the old one, plus a baby, transforming everything else as a baby always does. Adriansen and Mathou have lived this, and they tell that story naturalistically and realistically, always through Marietta's viewpoint, always focused on how she feels about herself and her baby.

They tell that story in a lovely, immediate way through cartooning. Mathou's style is warm and inviting, big eyes and rounded bodies and slightly exaggerated expressions. Adriansen keeps the captions short and focused - this is the kind of book that could have a blizzard of expert opinions footnoted on every page, but she smartly knows they're not needed. Marietta's situation is natural: millions of women go through it every year, and need support and love and attention to get through it.

This US edition was translated and Americanized by Montana Kane from the original French, including, I assume, some facts and figures Adriansen includes along the way. I noticed the numbers were about the USA, but nothing else about the translation, which is the best reaction to a translation: if you don't notice it, it's done right.

This is the kind of book that says "you're not alone" to a huge number of women struggling with what is usually the biggest, hardest, most exhaustingly wonderful thing that they've ever had to deal with. It says that clearly, lovingly, from the point of view of another woman who has been through it.

Monday, June 17, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Le Butcherettes

"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 pretty sure this is a song about sex. What I don't know is how we're supposed to take it. Le Butcherettes are a loud, raucous band - maybe I should say "were;" I'm not sure if they're still together, though they're the kind of band that's mostly one person and her collaborators at the time - and this is a loud, demanding song.

This week, it's Tonight.

He just stares but it's not staring
It's sin tonight

The music is pulsing, compelling. The singer - bandleader Teri Gender Bender - is insistent, about a "he" and a "you" (who is probably also "honey") and what they're going to do - all of it in vaguely mixed violent/sexual terms. He and you might be different people - "you" might be another target of "he." Or maybe not. Or maybe both.

Tonight, honey
In my mouth, in my thigh
In my rib, in my backside
In the middle of my sleep

And the fascinating part is that it's not at all clear whether the singer likes this or hates it. Or, again and more likely, both. It's a loud, punky, short song that shouts and growls and screams, raising tension that it has no intention of releasing. It's all set in that moment of desire - someone else's desire - about being the target and the focus of attention.

And short songs can be great at just providing that moment, that feeling - doing one thing and doing it well. This one does.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Reviewing the Mail: Week of June 15, 2024

I had a birthday earlier this month - a half-decade one, the kind that feel like they should be important but really aren't - and so I got some presents. All of these books were presents, and all but one of them were things I bought myself: as I've said before, one of the great benefits of being middle-aged is that you can buy yourself your own damn presents, and get exactly what you want.

Here's what I unwrapped:

Authority, the second book in Jeff Vandermeer's "Southern Reach" trilogy. I read the first book, Annihilation, a few years back, and want to catch up on Vandermeer's books, though (at my current reading speed) that's not all that likely. But this gives me a new option on the shelf, and supports a writer I like, and maybe I'll get to it soon.

The Demon Princes, Vol. 2 collects the concluding two novels of the five-volume series of that name by Jack Vance. I've been reading the series over the past six months or so - I started it after finishing up a re-read of Vance's "Dying Earth" books, and will probably continue reading random Vance for as long as I can keep finding decent modern editions - and I needed this book so I can get to these books in the near future. Vance is one of the greats: that's why.

Lyorn is the new book by Steven Brust, the seventeenth in his Vlad Taltos series. The most recent one before this was Tsalmoth; from my post on that you could continue backwards, if you care. This is a wonderful, quirky adventure-fantasy series with occasional (usually very successful) outbreaks of writerly game-playing, and the books tend to basically stand alone for anyone who wants to dip in.

And last is Poor Helpless Comics!, a collection of the work of Ed Subitsky. I gather this is pretty much entirely the '70s and '80s stuff I was already familiar with from the National Lampoon; Subitsky moved into TV after that and made more money doing something not nearly as time-consuming and puckish as weird comics with too many tiny boxes. But this stuff finally got collected, which is both surprising and wonderful.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Quote of the Week, Supplemental: Dashing the Dreams of a Thousand Movie Chase Scenes Yet To Come

The roofs of passenger coaches are not made for midnight promenades. And if any one thinks they are, let me advise him to try it. Just let him walks along the rood of a jolting, lurching car, with nothing to hold on to but the black and empty air, and when he comes to the down-curving end of the roof, all wet and slippery with dew, let him accelerate his speed so as to step across to the next roof, down-curving and wet and slippery. Believe me, he will learn whether is heart is weak or his head is giddy.

 - Jack London, The Road, p.210 in Novels and Social Writings

Quote of the Week: Quick-Change Artist

The sign painter, a Mr. Hy Sky - a name made up of the first syllable of his first name, Hyman, and the last syllable of a surname which no one can remember - is a bulky, red-faced man who has rented space in the Jollity Building for twenty-five years. With his brother, a lean, sardonic man known as Si Sky, he paints signs and lobby displays for burlesque and movie houses and does odd jobs of lettering for people in all sorts of trades. He is an extremely fast letterer and he handles a large volume of steady business, but it lacks the exhilaration of prohibition years. Then he was sometimes put to work at two o'clock in the morning redecorating a clip joint, so that it could not be identified by a man who had just been robbed of a bank roll and might return with cops the next day. "Was that fun!" Hy howls reminiscently. "And always cash in advance! If the joint had green walls, we would make them pink. We would move the bar opposite to where it was, and if there was booths in the place, we would paint them a different color and change them around. Then the next day, when the cops came in with the sap, they would say, 'Is this the place? Try to remember the side of the door the bar was on as you come in.' The sap would hesitate, and the cops would say, 'I guess he can't identify the premises.' and they would shove him along. It was a nice, comfortable dollar for me."

 - A.J. Liebling, "The Jollity Building," in The Jollity Building (pp.440-441 in The Sweet Science and Other Writings)

Friday, June 14, 2024

The Road by Jack London

I first read this around thirty years ago, when I was about as old as London was when he wrote it. I'm now more than a decade older than London ever got, for what that's worth. And what struck me this time was how modern a book The Road still is.

It's a model for eight or ten generations of non-fiction bestsellers since, both the "memoir of this exciting and/or dangerous and/or horrible time in my life" book and the "let me tell you about this quirky side of life, which I lived for a while and so am an expert in" tome. And London's sentences and diction are crisp twentieth-century American; almost a hundred and twenty years old but very close to The Way We'd Say It Now.

The big difference is the way he plays off slangy terms - all of the hobo lingo - in quotations, not just the first time he mentions a word, but consistently. There's still a vague hint of that Victorian fussiness about "good" and "bad" words still lurking in his head, as if the "bad" words need to be corralled and signposted.

But that's about it. He's not fussy in any other way. His sentences can get long, but never convoluted. London was a straightforward writer of things that happened, in his nonfiction as much as his fiction. That's why he was so popular: he wrote for a wide audience, and, then as now, wide audiences like as few veils between them and the reality of a book as possible.

Not long ago, read London's The People of the Abyss, which was a book with a social aim. The Road, on the other hand, is a book of yarns - a book of "hey, let me tell you the crazy things I got up to when I was seventeen and immortal and rode the rails from one end of the country to the other."

The Road has nine miscellaneous chapters: it starts in the middle and wanders about, like a storyteller, late at night in some hobo camp, telling you his best stories in the order they come to him. It told the public of 1907 more or less what it was like to ride the rails back in the mid-1890s, and my guess is that was basically still the same in 1907 (and probably similar in the 1880s, and through the next couple of decades up to the Depression, too). About two-thirds of the way in, he finally tells the story of how he went out "on the Road" - he'd spent his mid-teen years messing about on boats in San Francisco harbor, both as an "oyster pirate" and working for the authorities chasing said "pirates," and one boat trip led him into a hobo camp, which gave him the bug for a different kind of travel - but the book isn't organized in any specific way, and doesn't tell London's overall story.

That's not the point of it. This isn't "how Jack London, Famous Writer, became a tramp and What He Did On the Great Railroads of Our Nation." It's "Hey, did I ever tell you I was a hobo for a year or so? I remember this one crazy time in Des Moines....." The stories are various and jumbled by design, the time sequence is not supposed to be clear.

It's a book by a great writer, but most English teachers would be hard-pressed to consider it Great Literature, or to wring Lessons out of it. I like it even better for that.

(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.)

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Relationships According to Savage Chickens by Doug Savage

It's not quite tripping myself up, but...I sometimes specifically pick really short books to read so that I can have something to write about here the next day. (More often when I'm doing a Book-A-Day run, but at other times, too. Like right now.) But then I usually find that the really short books don't provide a lot of material to write about, because - and here may be the point where I'm stating the blindingly obvious - they are really short.

Now, that could be a feature: if I'm just trying to get done quickly, I read a short book, I write "hey, this book is short and is a really obvious thing" and go on with my life. But I feel like I'm short-changing you, my faithful reader.

(I address you in my head like that, when I'm feeling puckish, as if there actually is anyone who goes out of their way to read this random book-blog with no real theme and possibly the worst circa-2010 Blogger layout imaginable, in this the year of our lord twenty twenty-four. We all have our crotchets.)

Anyway, here I am again. Relationships According to Savage Chickens is a short collection of "Savage Chickens" strips by Doug Savage, one of a clump of themed books that came out around 2012 and only available digitally. (Well: now that I look more closely, this one and Zombies came out in '12, and there were three more last year. That's a good sign for the health of the ongoing Savage Chickens project, which I like to see: it's still a funny strip, and I like to see funny things stay successful.)

When I say "short," I mean "fifty single-page cartoons." That would be tiny for a book with a square binding, though about twice the side of a modern comic book - so I guess it all depends on perspective.

We start and end with "Romeo and Juliet" jokes. Savage is modern and at least mildly edgy; this isn't glurge in any way. I still like his rounded line: his chickens are just funny, with their big round eyes, their little wattles, and the way they look just a bit too big and ungainly for any possible situation.

As always, tastes in humor will vary. I think Savage is funny, and I wish he had more books that were somewhat longer (so I didn't feel awkward trying to write about them). I hope you will have a similarly positive reaction to his work.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Black Hammer: Visions, Vol. 2 by Jeff Lemire and a cast of thousands

Just so you know: I wouldn't pay attention to me about superhero comics. If I wasn't already me, I mean. I read very few of them, soured on the form something like twenty years ago, and think of the whole thing as a claustrophobic hall of mirrors, entirely devoted to never doing anything actually new or interesting.

The fact that, even this long after I paid attention to the form, I can still detect originals with half-decent accuracy is no credit to me: it just means the form is that hidebound and dull.

But I do read some of this stuff - mostly, recently, the "Black Hammer" comics usually written by Jeff Lemire and drawn by a rotating crew. And I read them the way some people watch NASCAR, watching and hoping for the crashes.

Black Hammer: Visions, Vol. 2 is the back half of a project from 2021, in which a group of other creators did one-off Black Hammer-verse stories. Is it "in continuity," you breathlessly ask? I dunno. Seems close enough to me. Probably. But these are stories not written by Lemire, not part of a larger plot, not going anywhere. (Insert my usual snarky comment about the core nature of superhero comics.) I read the first half a few months ago; this is the end.

First up is a Batman and Catwoman Daredevil and Black Cat Gravedigger and Bijou story, written by Kelly Thompson, drawn by Leonardo Romero, and colored by Jordie Bellaire. It is stylish and classy, another story of the big musclebound good guy ensnared by the dazzling, gorgeous female lawbreaker with hidden depths. I suppose we should have assumed Gravedigger had a story like that, since all his originals did, and this is it. It does exactly what it needs to do, and does it well.

Cthu-Lou gets another story, very closely paralleling the other stories he and his daughter have already appeared in, written by Cullen Bunn and drawn by Malachi Ward and Matthew Sheehan. As always, he's the Apocalypse Beast that doesn't want the job, so he gets domesticized, urban, darkly comedic versions of Hellboy plots. Here he foils one particular world-conquering plan of his extradimensional master - mostly in a fit of pique at being interrupted in his beer-drinking, TV-watching existence - as of course he will always do.

We return to the Land of Misfit Toys Limbo Land in a story by Cecil Castellucci and Melissa Duffy that asks the question: "what if Wonder Woman was a forgotten minor villain with the powers of Color Kid?" I'm not quite sure why the inhabitants of what's explicitly the home for characters who are not in stories and not being used are fighting with evil forces, since fighting is the core element of a superhero story. But this is another "isn't it sad to be a character without a story" story, another descendent of In Pictopia.

And last is a dark, gritty neo-western from Scott Snyder and David Rubín. It's the origin of The Horseless Rider, the requisite weird vengeance character of this universe - think Spectre or Phantom Stranger - mixed with one specific vengeance-taking.

Again, all four of these stories are professional and slick and solid...and all are deeply derivative and predictable, like a gymnast doing a good version of a required routine at some Olympic event. I may be the Russian judge here, I admit it. But I do wonder, as ever with Black Hammer, what the point of the whole thing is.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

The Jollity Building by A.J. Liebling

I wasn't sure that this was actually a real book that existed separately - I read it as a section in the Library of America tome The Sweet Science and Other Writings, since I was looking to read some Liebling and this clump seemed the most appealing at that random moment - but a quick search shows me a 1962 paperback, The Jollity Building, and the cover-copy there exactly describes the thing I just read. So this was a thing in itself, once, if you have any worries on that account.

A.J. Liebling was a journalist of the first half of the last century - first a newspaperman, then a mainstay of the New Yorker, particularly in its early (and possibly slightly less snooty) days. Liebling, as I understand it, had a beat somewhat on the seamy side: boxing, con men, good times and colorful characters.

The larger Library of America book - the parts I didn't read - includes his title book on boxing, one that seems to be mostly about Louisiana governor Huey Long, another book about eating in Paris, and one about the then-poor state of the Press. (I doubt Liebling would believe that state had gotten better in the sixty or so years since then, but it's probably poor in entirely different ways that Liebling would never have expected.)

But this particular book was made up of two clusters of essays, or columns - "The Jollity Building" itself, and "Aye Verily."

"The Jollity Building" is a semi-fictionalized commercial building, in the Broadway district, around about 1940. "Aye Verily" was the name of a column, mostly about betting on racehorses, in the New York Enquirer - that paper later went National, you may know it in its later form - written under the name of "Colonel John R. Stingo," which was not the real name of the man who produced it.

So "Jollity Building" has three essays about various inhabitants of that part of new York in those days, starting from the most specific and honest (the owner/operator of a successful cigar shop) through the still specific but less honest (a profile of a "Tummler," or promoter who stands up night clubs regularly and usually pays his various compatriots more or less what they are promised) on to the larger crowd that are honest at least some of the time (the various inhabitants of that title building, from the small-time agents and bookers and others in offices to the acts that roam through looking for work to the young men on the make who set up in phone booths in the lobby, pretending that is their phone number).

And, in case I wasn't clear, "Aye Verily" is a profile of the man who writes as Stingo, mostly being a collection of the stories he tells, which are probably somewhat true, in some degree, at their core.

My main complaint - and it is a mild one - is that "Aye Verily" is notably longer than "Jollity Building," and that "Aye Verily" is constructed to highlight the writing of Stingo...but I picked up this book to read Liebling, and enjoyed his work better than his extensive quotes of Stingo. Stingo is a character, true - the decayed Southern gentleman of mature years, scion of New Orleans aristocracy according to his own account - but his writing is more clotted, more turf-specific, and just less interesting a century later than Liebling's.

I spent the back half of this book wishing that Liebling was paraphrasing Slingo rather than giving us the man in full, which is not the best way to read a profile. But wishing I was reading Liebling more directly did make me want to read more Liebling, which is what I was hoping for with this tester. So the experiment was a success.

Monday, June 10, 2024

Portions for Foxes: Dawn Landes

"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.

There must be other cases of this - I'm just not thinking of them right now. Surely there are other creative couples who broke up, and both made art about the breakup? (I'm thinking there must be a relevant Richard & Linda Thompson example here, surely?)

Singer-songwriters Josh Ritter and Dawn Landes were married, for not quite a couple of years, a decade ago. It didn't go well: they've both been polite and vague about it since. And they both made records coming out of the break-up: Ritter with 2013's The Beast in Its Tracks (where I would highlight the lovely, reflective, ringing, positive Joy to You Baby), Landes with 2014's Bluebird.

And the song I have today is my favorite from Bluebird, a fine record of lovely sadness and an eye that's trying to look forward. Today I want to celebrate Cry No More.

No matter how hard I try pain lingers
Our love's gone dry like grease on my fingers
To need a reason why, just pull out the stingers

It's a quiet, contemplative song, mostly Landes's voice and her strumming guitar - with her own voice in the background, harmonizing, as a support, as if it's all the parts of her coming together to remind herself that she can and will get through this.

The title is something between a wish and an imperative. I'd like to think it's already happened, but it could be a vow:

Not gonna cry no more
I know what tears are for
I don't need to cry no more

We all have things that made us cry: big or small. And we all have that moment when we have to say enough and move on. This is a song for that moment, or the moment just afterward. It is lovely and true.

Sunday, June 09, 2024

Reviewing the Mail: Week of June 7, 2024

One book this week, from the fine house of Tachyon:

Yoke of Stars, a new novel in the Birdverse by R.B. Lemberg, coming July 16th in trade paperback and digital formats. 

I don't think I've read Lemberg, though I know I've seen other books in this series (from Tachyon) - without entirely being clear about the specific series-ness of it. (What I mean is: some series follow a single main character in individual episodes, some follow a big cast in a big overall story, and some do quirkier things, like telling a lot of different stories in the same world. I get the sense the Birdverse is big and capacious, that each story so far doesn't necessarily lead directly to any other story. But, again: I'm going on vibes and implications in this book's back-cover copy, and am probably wrong at least somewhat.)

This one is about a person named Stone Orphan, about to graduate from the School of Assassins - just waiting to get the big graduation assignment, and kill someone to prove their skills. But instead of killing someone, Orphan seems to spend this book trading stories with a linguist - so this is more of an engine to embed further stories, or a manifold of related tales, than the adventure fiction you'd expect from a story starting with an apprentice assassin.

Saturday, June 08, 2024

Quote of the Week: The Other Persuasion

My other grandmother [...] was a Glencoe MacDonald, strong and of few words, worshipping a stern God on whom she kept a close eye to see that he didn't get up to anything the Presbytery wouldn't have approved of, like granting salvation to Catholics and Wee Frees. She frightened me, for she was hard and forbidding and insisted that we walk miles to church on Sundays. On these walks I was naturally forbitten to take my ball; on weekdays I could dribble it along beside her, and on one occasion she even condescended to kick it, watching it with a cold eye to see that it rolled straight. It did.

 - George MacDonald Fraser, "Night Run to Palestine," The General Danced at Dawn (pp.86-87 in The Complete McAuslan omnibus)

Friday, June 07, 2024

Disquiet by Noah Van Sciver

There are times when I don't have much to say here. I read a book, I mostly liked it, I've already read a number of things by the same creator, I don't have anything particularly new or specific to say this time.

And that sounds so horribly minimizing, doesn't it?

But "this is good stuff, in line with the same person's previous good stuff" is actually very positive. (Right? I think so, anyway.)

So, with that caveat: I just read Noah Van Sciver's 2016 collection of comics short stories, Disquiet. It's a general, miscellaneous collection - everything I've seen from him previously has been more focused, from the graphic novels Fante Bukowski and Saint Cole to the self-explanatorily themed As a Cartoonist collection.

But this one is just some stories and art Van Sciver did, over about the previous five years, collected between two covers and assembled into a plausible order. They have different tones and styles and concerns - some modern-day, some historical, one more folkloric - and they're separated by individual pieces of Van Sciver art, so they each sit separately, like objects on a shelf. I like that in a collection, frankly - with prose, it tends to be a thing of making sure there are blank left-hand pages where appropriate, and maybe icons or dingbats or similar decorative elements, but comics-makers are more likely to just have more art, that they did, which can help to divide stories from each other.

I guess I might as well take the stories one at a time:

"Dive Into that Black River" is a nearly wordless, two-page spread, more of a poster than a narrative comic. It's the opposite of "hang in there, baby!" if you think of it as a poster.

"The Lizard Laughed" is the story of one day in the life of Harvey, a middle-aged man in New Mexico, whose estranged son Nathan comes to visit. They're meeting for the first time in close to twenty years, since Harvey ran out on the family when the boy was nine. They go on a hike; the two have little in common, as you'd expect. It doesn't end the way Nathan expected, which is good for Harvey. Harvey didn't have any real expectations; he may be too self-centered for that anyway.

"it's over" is a two-pager in a straightforward confessional/realistic mode, in which a young man reconnects with an old girlfriend for a one-day fling on his thirtieth birthday - which also turns out to be a major (fictional) world-historical event.

"The Death of Elijah Lovejoy" combines a two-page text introduction to the overall life of that 1830s abolitionist with a comics retelling of the mob that attacked his printing press, burning it down and killing him. (This might be the most Van Sciverian comic here, to my eye, all sweaty/bloody men fighting for their rigid views in the19th century.)

"The Cow's Head' is some kind of fable, I think - a young woman (who has the same name as Van Sciver's then-girlfriend, who also wrote the book's introduction - possibly coincidence but I doubt it) is driven out of their rural hovel by her cruel stepmother, finds shelter, and is polite to a flying, talking head of a cow. (As you do, in fables.) This, as also happens in fables, leads to better things for her, though not for her sad-sack father.

"Down in a Hole" is a weird one, in which a former TV kid-show clown goes spelunking and is captured by the secret subterranean race of mole people. Both of those random elements are equally important, and then there's a twist ending. There's a lot going on here, and I bet there's some subtext or purpose I just didn't get.

"Untitled" is told in small-format pages - maybe it was a minicomic? - and focuses on a young woman, visiting her parents for Christmas. She lives nearby - close enough to bicycle - but rarely visits. It's a slice-of-life mood piece, so I won't try to explain the moods.

"Dress Up" is the doubly-narrated story of a good Samaritan/vigilante who foiled a robbery, as told by him to a young female reporter a little later, after the initial media furor has quieted a bit.

"When You Disappear" tells the story of a prison break, two men fleeing to New Jersey, there talking and separating. It's based on a dream, but is less "dream-logic-y" than that might imply.

"Punks Vs. Lizards" is a pulpy post-apocalyptic story about, yes, punks who battle giant  intelligent lizards that have apparently conquered the world. Our Hero defeats one particularly powerful lizard at great cost.

And last is "Nightshift," in which yet another young woman tells how she worked at a bakery overnights for a while, saving up money to get out of this unnamed town.

I found all of the stories interesting, and many of them compelling. They were aiming to do different things, and all were good at what they aimed to do (assuming I was correct). This is a probably a better introduction to Van Sciver than the two or three books of his I actually read first, if anyone thinks his work sounds interesting.

Thursday, June 06, 2024

Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Being relatable is useful, sure - but have you ever considered just how many of the great protagonists are actually assholes?

I'm only half-joking. Think of Hamlet, Holden Caulfield, Sherlock Holmes - and that's just touching on the Hs. Even in comics, who are the characters you remember? For me, what comes to mind quickly are Joe Matt in his own comics, Vladek Spiegelman, Rorschach, Hopey. And none of those are people who would be easy to live with, or be friends with.

So when I say that Scott Pilgrim is shallow, conflict-avoidant, deeply immature and vastly more of a jerk than he's usually credited with...well, I'm saying he's one of the greats, I guess. 

I'm re-reading Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim books for no good reason - which is the only appropriate reason to tackle the adventures of this world-class slacker. See my post from April for the first book, Precious Little Life, and now I'm back with Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, the second book and title source for the 2010 movie.

I'm impressed at how self-assured O'Malley was how quickly: World is well-structured, diving in immediately with a flashback and moving forward both the immediate plot (time for evil ex #2!) and the longer-term arc of the series. This is the book where we really first see The Clash at Demonhead, which includes both Scott's ex Envy Adams and Ramona's ex Todd Ingram. The longest fight scene here isn't the one of Scott and Evil Ex #2 - O'Malley was already switching things up and playing against expectations this early in the series.

Another small touch I noticed and really appreciated: O'Malley does little "character cards" when people are introduced, somewhat consistently. But it's only the first time; you don't need to introduce the same person repeatedly. Except for Knives Chau, who is introduced a good half-dozen times in this book, always as "Knives Chau, 17 Years Old."

Because: Yeah, that's the point. In a cast of young people with poor impulse control, grandiose dreams, and vague plans, Knives is even younger and vaguer and more impulsive than all those twenty-three-year-olds who think they're older and sophisticated.

(Spoiler: every single member of the cast of Scott Pilgrim is baby-young. Like toddlers just wandering around Toronto. It's actually adorable.)

Otherwise, World is a fine example of how to transition from a book to a series - Life could have stood on its own, if it had to. (Any good first book must.) World, on the other hand, extends Life, adding more details, and sets up immediately for the next book and more vaguely for the entire back half of the series. The dialogue is zippy, the gigantic eyes are weirdly compelling, and the quirky worldbuilding (including a great River City Ransom homage that, even this time, I thought would turn into a dream sequence - no, not at all, that's how this world rolls) is specific and grounded in its nuttiness.

I was wondering if Scott Pilgrim was starting to get dated - too much an artifact of its era, too specific - but slackers are eternal, and it looks like video games will be as well. Twenty years on, it's still vital and true.