Thursday, April 27, 2017

Bachelors Anonymous by P.G. Wodehouse


I find I consistently come back to Wodehouse as a palate cleaner after reading something really good. There are very few writers who can compare to Kelly Link -- whose book of short stories Get in Trouble I was reading just before Bachelors Anonymous -- but Wodehouse can stand any comparison.

Yes, his work is artificial. Yes, it's entirely constrained. Yes, it's set in a world almost entirely unlike our own in a million tiny ways. Yes a thousand yesses. But it's also magnificent in its artificiality, precise and sublime in its construction, and built with exquisite care out of words chosen to be exact and tight-fitting -- like the most brilliantly useless hypercar ever, a gleaming and glorious monument to silly excess.

And, on the other hand, I have scattered across my shelves books that are perfectly nice -- some of them may be vastly better than that, for all I know -- but were less stylistically inventive or obviously well-written than something transcendent that I read before them. When that happens, the later book feels like a trudge and a slog, and I've learned to just give up quickly at that point. So there have been a few dozen things that I read ten or fifty pages of but felt only meh. I've found, from long trial-and-error, that only one writer will consistently transcend the deadly Every-novel-is-meh Syndrome: Wodehouse. (The other path involves diving into nonfiction for a while, and is less quick. Because a book of nonfiction may also become meh.)

So Wodehouse is now my go-to after a book that would otherwise beg comparisons to anything more realistic or contemporary. Luckily, Wodehouse wrote nearly a hundred books in his life, and nearly all of them are in print in those lovely little Overlook Press hardcovers. (And I have a stuffed-full shelf of them to choose from.) This particular little morsel is from the very end of his long writing life, published in 1973, just a couple of years (literally) before Wodehouse's knighthood and subsequent death. (I am not here claiming a connection. I haven't made a serious study of the timeframe.)

As typical with Wodehouse, it's about people falling in love, or trying not to. Young men and women -- and some older ones as well -- mostly connected with the arts (a movie mogul, a playwright, a journalist, an actress...but also a lawyer or two and a nurse, eventually) who just need to find each other, struggle through the usual plot complications and settle down. This time out, though, there is an organization -- the title group, out of Hollywood -- that helps its members keep themselves unmarried rather than going around for what may be the sixth time.

Can the force of true love win out over silly misunderstandings and a pseudo-twelve-step group? Well, of course it can: this is Wodehouse.

Bachelors Anonymous is late Wodehouse, which means it's a bit short and not quite as rococo as his best, but it's sunny and amiable and funny and glorious and entirely entertaining. And, having read it, I'm ready to jump back into anything else.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Hot Dog Taste Test by Lisa Hanawalt

I've said before that I keep confusing the comics of Lisa Hanawalt with those of Gemma Correll, but that's probably just me. (So many things in this world are.) In case anyone else is laboring under this particular handicap, the big distinction -- other than the fact that they're entirely different people doing entirely different work, with only slight and occasional similarities in their art -- is that Hanawalt is American, previously in NYC and most recently (according to this book) in LA, while Correll is British.

Hot Dog Taste Test was Hanawalt's second collection of comics, after 2013's My Dirty Dumb Eyes (which, I have to admit, I keep wanting to switch around and call "Dumb Dirty"), and collects drawings, comics, and odder elements mostly around the subject of food and eating. (Note that "what happens to food after you eat it" is something Hanawalt considers a related topic, and there are several cartoons on the other end of the alimentary canal. In particular, I like her request to rename poop "doof,"since that's food backward.)

Hanawalt has a quirky sense of humor, and is not generally trying to create conventional jokes in the works here. This is mostly observational humor from someone who probably likes more kinds of food than you do and someone who definitely thinks seriously about pooping more often than you do. I want to call her work earthy, but that may have a '60s-hippie feeling that isn't what I mean: she's earthy in a modern, totally up-to-date way, all about kale and ortolan and using time machines to see how historical people poop.

I do not think I'm doing a good job of making this book sound appealing. Maybe I should come in at this from a different direction.

Hot Dog Taste Test is funny and unique, like that one friend of yours from college who always went too far. If you could close him like a book whenever you needed to, he would be perfect, right? So here you are -- cartoons and illustrated stories and sketchbook pages and scrawled asides and doodled thoughts about poop, about stuff that goes into your mouth and comes out from lower parts. (Note: there's also some menstruation stuff: I know some of you boys freak out about that.) There's other stuff, too -- a long travel diary about her family in Argentina that doesn't have much to do with food, and another multi-page piece about swimming with otters that similarly avoids mastication, and a few pages about bird-headed people including what I think is the author self-insert character. But the through-line is food, from the pros and cons of different meals to random jokes and scribbles and paintings.

Hanawalt is funny in really specific ways, like no one else. And unique voices are to be cherished. So there you go.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Bandette, Vol. 3: The House of the Green Mask by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover

This third story of the lady thief Bandette -- after Presto! and Stealers, Keepers! -- is just as much of a frothy, lovely souffle as the first two, and shows that Tobin and Cooper can indeed spin this concoction out beyond its initial lengths.

More complications and elements of this pseudo-French milieu continue to emerge in The House of the Green Mask, but all fit into the essential light-heartedness of the Bandette books: Bandette herself will always be victorious, will always be witty, will always have candy bars to celebrate a glorious theft, will always be supported by her cadre of orphans and other random denizens of this great city, and will face what seem like overwhelming odds with aplomb, style, and a smile on her face.

This is not a realistic world, and is in no danger of ever becoming one; I suppose it's an action farce, if that's a plausible term, and a farce is always highly artificial, taking place in a universe machined to minute tolerances so that the plot can race through it at high speeds and to greatest effect.

I could give more details of that plot here, but what would be the point? A souffle is in the eating. And this is a marvelous one. So go and eat it already.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Well, Isn't This a Charming Disaster?

I occasionally get things other than books in my mail, and I'm supposed to be telling you people about them as well. (If this sounds entirely new to you, it's because I'm not very good at it.)

But one thing -- the new record Cautionary Tales by the Brooklyn-based chamber duo Charming Disaster -- has been rolling around my head quite a lot lately, so I wanted to actually make an effort to mention it and recommend it here.

Charming Disaster is made of up of the leaders of two other bands I've never heard of -- Ellia Bisker of Sweet Soubrette and Jeff Morris of Kotorino -- plus some other musicians, I guess. (If you have heard of either of those bands -- they are likely better known than I realize, since I am out of so many loops it's a wonder I know anything -- this may intrigue you.)

And they play music that I think other SFF folks, and readers in general, will like a lot: chamber pop/cabaret influenced by folklore, mythology, pulp fiction, murder ballads, and similar odd corners of Americana, sung duet-style by two excellent singers. At the moment, I'm particularly fond of the songs "Ragnarok" (guess what it's about) and "Days Are Numbered" (two competing spies), but I've only been through the record a few times, so that may change.

Cautionary Tales was officially released April 21st (last Friday), and is available via the links above and below from Bandcamp, and from the usual corporate stores as well. It's their second full-length album -- do we still call them albums? -- after Love, Crime, & Other Trouble, which I have not heard yet.

Anyway, I think a lot of you would like this sort of thing. And, if I did it right, there will be a widget below allowing you to listen to the songs right here -- not sure if it's just snippets or the whole thing, but we'll find out together, won't we?

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/22

OK, so, Monday again, huh? There's always another one.

For this Monday, as with all others, I'm going to tell you about the books that came in my mail the prior week. Sometimes it's a lot (and my Sunday is full of typing, squinting at ISBNs, and trying to phrase bemused disinterest in a more positive way over and over), and sometimes it's not.

This week, it's one, which is a nice number: it gives me an excuse to make this post in the first place, lets me pretend I'm giving a spotlight to this one book on purpose, and doesn't take too much time. If the book itself looks interesting, all the better.

Wicked Wonders is that book, at least right now. It's a collection of stories by Ellen Klages, with thirteen pieces of fiction and the true-life story of "The Scary Ham." (And I am here to tell you I have already read "The Scary Ham," as I was looking at this book and make preliminary motions at my keyboard. I will tell you no more about it, but it made me want to get into Wicked Wonders more quickly than I otherwise would have.)

It's a trade paperback from Tachyon, with a classy cover that looks stealthily like whatever dull memoir of a horrible childhood all of those book-club women in your neighborhood are reading right now. Think of it as protective coloration. Read this in public, and everyone will think you've got something worthy and classy -- and they will be more right than they know.

Do I need to tell you more? I don't really know Klages -- other than running into her a couple of times, back when I was in the SF world more than I am now -- and don't know her work well, either. But I've already read one story in this book, and I want to read more. And that's the core function of a collection: to get you to read one story, and then another. So this book is successful, and you should try it yourself.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link

There's a cliche that you should read short-story collections slowly -- picking it up, reading one story, and putting it back down until it's time for the next one, so each story has an individual impact. You see it a lot in laudatory introductions and reviews, when writers are digging deep in their sack of tricks to pull out the biggest compliment they can think of for their mentors or best friends or idols. And maybe some people really do read like that on purpose: I don't know how everyone reads, but I know enough to know that there's a lot of people who do things in ways I find really weird.

So when I say that I read Kelly Link's third major short-story collection Get in Trouble one story a time, one or occasionally two a day and missing a lot of days, over what turned out to be three weeks, please understand that I'm not saying that standard compliment I just described. I'm perfectly capable of reading one short story and then picking up another one right away -- at least most of the time, when there's enough time to get through the next one.

And I have to admit that part of my slowness is just the way my life is now: I read mostly during my commute, and sometimes that's too hectic to get a book out (or even get a seat). And a book of longer stories, like this one, means that one leg of a commute is probably only one story long anyway.

But, still. After each of the first few stories in this book -- three? four? I can't remember exactly, now -- I had to stop, put the book down for at least a moment, and take it all in. It had been a while since I last read Link: I knew, intellectually, how good she was, but I didn't feel it, viscerally, until those stories started hitting me. She's a writer whose stories end precisely: on exactly the right few words, at exactly the right moment. And they pack a wallop.

A writer like that doesn't get a lot of work out, of course. Get in Trouble is only the third Link collection, after Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners. It collects roughly a decade's worth of work -- nine stories from 2006 through 2014, including one new one for this volume. It would be nice to have more Kelly Link stories, definitely. But only if they could be as good as these, and that's a very high bar. Maybe the next decade will be more productive for her, maybe not. In life, you get what you get.

So here are nine great stories, some of which you may have read before if you're really plugged in. (I hadn't; this last decade has seen me getting very un-plugged.) They're mostly fantasy, in that they have strange and mysterious elements in them that don't fit what we think of as normal reality. At least one is also science fiction. They mostly are about women, which still is not as common in SFF as it should be, and worth celebrating. They're also largely about young people -- maybe because we think stories happen to young people.

I can't tell you more than that about them. You have to read them. You should read them. Even if you don't read much short fiction, or fantasy, or fiction at all. I think Kelly Link will be read a hundred years from now, and taught. I think there will be long dissertations on her stories. And, more importantly, I think those students in 2117 "forced" to read the Penguin Classics edition of Link's stories will realize that they're still wonderful, because they will be.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Distant Neighborhood, Vol. 1 by Jiro Taniguchi

Usually, I would try to hold a two-book series to review together. But I got A Distant Neighborhood, Vol. 1 from the library, and there's no telling when that library will disgorge Vol. 2, so I might as well type now while the book is in front of me and my memories are as clear as they'll ever be.

A great transition here would be to say that this book -- a manga originally written and drawn in 1998 by Jiro Taniguchi -- is all about memory, but that's really not true. It's a time-slip book, so it's about the realness of the past rather than the way we remember and remake the past in the present. Distant Neighborhood is a fantasy, because its central events are the impossible ones millions of us have thought about and wished for and mulled over.

We can't actually go back to being fourteen again, back in our old (young) body, living with our still-young parents, going to school. Can't slough off the life of a middle-aged businessman to start over as a kid. But that's just what happens to Hiroshi Nakahara in this book: he accidentally takes the wrong train back from a business trip, ending up in his home town for the first time in many years. He goes to his mother's grave, to pray or meditate or just have a quiet moment, and when he gets back up it's more than thirty years earlier. The father who ran off is still there, the mother who later died is young and vibrant, and the eighth grade is just about to start.

Hiroshi at first wants to go back to his old life -- he worries about his wife and two daughters, even though he neglects them most of the time -- but then sinks back into the life of a junior high schooler. It's easy for him, the second time around: the gym classes he hated originally now showcase how young and fit he is; the academics are both easier than his future job and entirely about concepts he already learned once. He does have some trouble keeping his secret, since he's used to being a responsible adult, not a child in regimented early-60s Japan, but he mostly manages to act like a plausible young teen, if a more poised and mature one than he was the first time around.

This is only the first half of the story, of course. Hiroshi wants to stop his father from walking out on the family, which he's going to do, in a few months. That doesn't happen in this volume, either way. But Hiroshi does connect with his father and grandmother on an adult level in a way he didn't when he was actually fourteen years old. And that leads to his learning how his parents actually met -- a sadder story than he expected, at the end of World War II.

Someday soon, I will know how this story ends. Maybe Hiroshi will pop back into his middle-aged life after doing something specific as a teen -- some moment that he had to live over to learn a lesson or set something right. Maybe he'll just keep moving forward in time, like everyone else, given a second chance. Maybe something completely unexpected. Whatever happens, I'm confident Taniguchi will tell that story cleanly, precisely, and deeply, just like the first half.

I'd heard Taniguchi's name for a while, but I'm sorry to say it took his recent death to get me to read his books. He's a smart, adult story-teller here, focused on character and nuance in dialogue and narration and art, acutely attuned to small moments and shifts of emotion. He's one of the great ones, I think -- and I'm sorry it took the end of his career to get me to experience his work.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 4/15

Every week, I list whatever books came in my mail here, because I feel like I should do something to publicize them, and I'm certainly not reading them quickly enough.

Publicity, though, increasingly has shifted to electronic copies -- which are both cheaper and vastly easier to control -- and even print copies tend to go out to outlets that have made some kind of commitment to cover them. (And I tend not to make commitments that I know I won't live up to.)

So this is another week with no books. I actually kinda like those weeks, since it makes the "job" of typing this post much quicker and easier. At some point, if there's a long enough string of no-book weeks, I may stop doing this post entirely. That will be sad, since I'm not one to give up on any habit, no matter how pointless.

Anyway, I've got four books I read last week that I want to write about, and it's Easter morning (meaning family frivolity and eating will take up much of the day), so let me try to get to that.