Monday, May 25, 2020

Plague Books: Plague Book

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier, Vintage Books, 2006

Provenance: This is a re-read: I read it many years ago and thought well enough of it to hold onto as opposed to pass on to others, intending to write something about it. Now is the time.

I think this was one of the last books we got from the Quality Paperback Book Club. The QPB was (and maybe is, for all I know) one of those monthly book clubs where they mailed you the selection and gave you a catalog with other options. And we were pretty happy with it when we lived in Lake Geneva, but once we moved out here, we were less and less interested in their offerings and finally opted out.

Apparently, QPB is an extremely shadowy group, and no one knows who is really running the works (the Book of the Month club is handling fulfillment, and a query to the Wikipedia dumps us there). It is sort of a book club Illuminati, an interesting piece of the publishing industry, a vector for moving print like a virus, but that is only tangential to the book itself.

Review:  To all outward appearances this is a traditional work of fiction - simple, raised, embossed silvered title, "National Bestseller" running along the top margin,  pull quote from the Washington Post Book World, artistic photographic cover design that would put it at home next to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil on the shelves. A little digging even reveals that its first chapter was displayed in The New Yorker.  A confluence of traditional New York publishing tropes that declare " This is a modern novel."

But it is a science fiction tale that hangs on a fantasy assumption When one dies, one's spirit/
identity/soul/existence transposed into a limbo, a City, where it continues on in the much the same way as in life, until the last person who remembers the once-living dies as well. Only at that point does the spirit move on to an unknowable future. So what happens to The City when a world-wide plague destroys humanity?

The tale is told on two fronts - The City itself, and Antarctica, where the last survivor of the plague - "The Blinks" - struggles to survive.  Those within the city are swept up with a huge tide of the newly dead, then are confronted with people disappearing as quickly as they arrive, the only ones who remember them are themselves brought down by the disease. The City itself is shrinking as well, as no one still living remembers it.

The survivor is Laura Byrd, employee of the Coca-Cola company, stranded in a former research stations at the bottom of the world. The world of the (now-near) future is as expected - the large mammals are all dead, the sea levels are rising, there is continual warfare, and bio-engineered plagues are common. Laura is there because of marketing - Coca-Cola pushing the idea that their sweetened soft drink is made with the last pure water on earth (yes, similar to the various bottled-watered claims). Ultimately, the soft drink is the vector to kill the world. Her companions die and she is left alone to try to get off the continent while the rest of the world succumbs.

The writing is first-rate, and the story carries through both from Laura's viewpoint and the community of the dead, who come to realize that their continued existence hinges solely on Laura's survival. They vary from long-time friends and colleagues and family to individuals she saw once and remembered afterwards - Laura's gaze is all-encompassing. While the plague burns the world, those who live on in her memory congregate in The City. But Laura is herself dying.

Back when I first read this, I was talking to a friend who worked in the New York publishing. "Why is is marketed with the monotone photos of New York's version of literature?", I ask. "Set in the then-future, talking about bio-warfare, discussing the afterlife. How is this not an SF novel?"

"Vintage does not publish science fiction," he responded simply.

Indeed. Yet even shorn of its physical similarities, the book holds forth with the vibe of  Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, and other end-of-the-worlders. In bringing it tightly into the orbit of Laura and the citizens of the City, it has an attraction that makes it worth reading, and then re-reading years afterwards.

More later,

Friday, May 15, 2020

Plague Books: Magic City

Passing Strange by Ellen Klages, TOR Books, 2017

Provenance: This was in the big box of books I got from someone at TOR. I told that story here, when I reviewed Network Effect, so I won't go into the who rigamarole on that. But I still had a pile of books, and I picked this one off the top. It is the sort of book I might pick on recommendation or based on a review, but in all honesty it was on the top of the pile, and had an odd title and it was short.

Review: Wow, this is a gem.

This is one of those books totally make it worth the risk of reading an author you've never read before. Magical, mystical, and sweet.

The novel opens with an elderly Asian woman diagnosed with a terminal condition, putting her affairs in order. On the final days of her life, she rescues original piece of pulp art from its hiding place in the basement of a building she owns. It is the last piece of a legendary pulp artist, and she sells it to a rather repellent dealer for a great deal of money. Then she goes home and takes an overdose.

But that's not the story. Actually we go back to 1940 in San Francisco, and into queer subculture of the era and tell the story of the artwork. The artist is question, Haskel, has been midgendered by time - she is a woman drawing sensational pulp covers. She has a collection of friends, about half-a-coven, that include a scientist and her girlfriend, who has a bit of mystical ability in folding maps. The Asian woman in question, Helen, is there, who is both a lawyer and a dancer at a local tourist restaurant that caters to racial stereotypes near Chinatown. Into their orbit falls Emily, a young woman, newly arrived from back East with a wonderful voice and a talent for cross-dressing as a man named Spike. The artist, Haskel, falls hard for Emily. It is a love story cast against the background of San Francisco in the shadow of the war.

And the writing is wonderful. Klages makes San Francisco come alive. David Dodge gave us a collection of street names and called it San Francisco, but, Klages brings entire neighborhoods alive. You get a sense of wonder and delight, and yes, magic, that only belongs to certain places in certain times with certain people. It lifts you up and carries you forward and makes you really care about the characters.

Her writing about San Francisco sparked whole sequence of pleasant memories for me.. I am on the record of being neutral about LA, but San Francisco is one of those cities that I visited and said "yeah, I could live here." I remember visits and conventions and just wandering through this city and visiting friends and relatives in the Bay Area. San Francisco has always been magical and chimerical. It is Nova Albion and Emperor Norton and Sam Spade and Vertigo and the Cliff House and Tony Bennett. I have gone on record as being LA-Neutral, but San Francisco holds a particular charm for me, its own magic.

But there is darkness in the magic as well, as shown in the book. The local lesbian club, Mona's, solely exists by being a tourist stop for moralizing mid westerners, on the barest fringe of acceptability. The cops are crooked and the law is stacked against them.. Both the artist Haskel and the dancer Helen cater to public trafficking in racial stereotypes to make their living. Women in general, and lesbians in particular, are either invisible to the greater world or targeted by it. They are both integral to the world and outsiders to it.

The heart is the romance between Haskel and Emily. It is not just a slow burn. It smolders like exotic spice in a brazier. The fantastic elements of the tale are hinted at early, but actually arrive only towards the end of the book. In the meantime, we get a sweet, sweeping romance in the shadows, mature in a positive sense in that we are dealing with grown-ups and real feelings and all the messiness that that involves.

Passing Strange is one of those books that I want to press into the hands of others, because I think they will enjoy it. It has been out for a while, so it can be probably found easily. Treat yourself to it.

More later,

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Classics Illustrated

So, in my wanderings, I found a site that allowed you to make a cover that looked like one from Penguin Classics or Oxford World Classics, which have very distinctive looks. So I made one, and the result is over on the right. And I thought it was pretty good for five minutes work.

And the universe being what it is, I posted it to my Facebook, and got a lot of response. Some of it was from people who really loved the original book (which is greatly appreciated) and those who played the computer game based on the book (which is also nice) and those wanting to know if it was a real book, and was Penguin about to release on the world the old FR books from decades back.

Which is, alas, untrue (so far as I know it). It is a little amusing, in that, back in the day, Penguin WAS the British publisher/distributor of the books (I don't know when/if they stopped, but I had a number of British editions in the basement at one time). But it would be interesting if some small press picked up all of these old volumes and put them back into print (and, you know, paid the authors).

But as for me, I have taken a solemn vow not to speak untruths, even in jest, nor to taunt people with such tomfoolery. For more about this solemn vow, please click here. 

More later,

Friday, May 08, 2020

Life in the Time of Virus, Continued

And so we close out the second month of seclusion. We're doing OK.

I am still working from home. My company sent its programmers and designers and other office workers home about two months ago, and, according to my great-great-great-great-grandboss, we may be continuing the process into October. I have ensconced myself in the basement library, on an oak table that we usually use for gaming evenings. I've done a lot of work at kitchen tables and in other improvised conditions over the years, so I am used to this. Plus, we are shipping a game this month, so we've all been a bit busy.

The Lovely Bride is still preparing taxes, the deadline for which has been extended because of the  virus. She has been going in only a few days a week at this point, as the weather turns and she lusts to be out in the garden. The latest hassle in tax-world is that deceased citizens are receiving stimulus checks, which is balling up future tax preparation. We relieved a small amount (we did not expect anything) in direct deposit, then got a few days later a self-congratulatory letter from the president taking credit for it. He should have sent masks instead.

Speaking of masks, one of the Lovely Bride's clients made one for her, and I got two from a colleague who is a maker (for you old-timers, that's a hip word for someone who makes stuff). With her hours reduced, the LB is picking up grocery shopping again. There is confusion in the stores, with aisles being turned one-way, and half the shoppers correcting the other half that are going the wrong way on one-way aisles. We can't find orzo or mascarpone.  Hardly the end of the world.

I am not missing things I thought I would miss. Theatre. Comic books. I do miss browsing in used bookstores still, and predict that, once this is over, they will swell in content from everyone who has been Marie Kondoing their libraries for the past two months. Ditto resale shops.

I am still growing a beard. It is still scraggly.

I thought I would be binge-watching a lot more stuff on the net, but that's not happening either. I got most of the way through "The Thick of It", but it is still waiting for completion. I've dabbled with the Masterclass series, mostly Penn and Teller. I watched only one of the National Theatre's free productions on the net. It is hard to watch theatre on the iPad. There is a sense of commitment in real theatre, that holds you attention because, well, you're not going anywhere while the play is in motion. In the case of streaming, you have stuff that is always tempting you away. Probably why I don't read a lot of books on the Kindle App (the LB, on the other hand, burns through Kindle books at a high rate of speed).

I am reading more physical books, which is nice. Harlan Ellison once said, "Who wants a library full of books you've already read?" So I am doing a little pruning, revisiting old tomes, and finally getting around to finishing some of the larger volumes in the late evening. It has been the high point of my day.

Still reading newspapers in the morning, over an omelette (the Lovely Bride, allergic, sleeps in). Newspapers, reliant on advertising, have taken a hit as not one wants to advertise to people not leaving the house. The Stranger is online only, most of its people stepped away for the moment. The Seattle Times has shrunk with its lack of advertising, and the white space between lines and at the margins has grown. The news itself is only starting to report things that are happening outside America that doesn't involve coronavirus.The latest was two American mercenaries trying to Bay-of-Pigs Venezuela. Might have worked if they we're social media posting during it. 

Seattle is doing OK, generally. The current death toll is actually on par with this time of year, even given coronovirus casualties, and the concurrent rise of general deaths from people are not bringing it to the hospital because that's where the sick people are. The New Yorker came up with a very article praising Washington State's science-based approach, though mostly to compare it to the mess in New York City at the moment.

Still no universal testing, so the actual numbers may be low.

And we are slowly, slowly ramping back. Stages and measurements. Dials. Yes, it is a pain and I'd like to get a haircut but its not worth someone else's life. The problem with flattening the curve is that, even flattened, it is still a curve. People are still risks and at risk. And so our lives will change for a while longer. 

The good news is that phone marketing calls have dropped almost to zero.

But all in all, I am pretty sure I can handle retirement from a "Don't leave the house for weeks" standpoint.

More later,

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Plague Book: Two-Fisted Accountants

Death and Taxes a Whit Whitney Mystery by David Dodge,  Bruin Books, 1941, reprint 2010

Provenance: Sometimes you just buy the wrong gift. The Lovely Bride is a professional tax professional, an Enrolled Agent, and we have talked over the years about doing a "tax mystery" novel. So I went searching to see if someone else had done this. And I was pointed to David Dodge, who would later write It Takes a Thief.

So I picked it up for the LB for Christmas (purchased from Amazon since I could not find it locally). She read a chapter and set it aside (her bookmark, a Christmas postcard from Japan, is still in place). So I picked it up and read it through. Yeah, this was the wrong gift. Let me tell you why.

Review: Before I get to the author's text, I have three pages of glowing reviews for the book. Then a glowing original ad for the book. Then a practically incandescent bio of the author. Then period maps of the Bay Area. So its gets a big build-up.

And what I got ultimately was OK. Not what I wanted. The protagonist, tax accountant Whit Whitney, is hard-boiled to the point of being overcooked. He is a man of action. Women want him, men want to be him. The plot is two parts Maltese Falcon (partner gets bumped off, partner's wife and protagonist have feelings for each other) and two parts Thin Man (without Myrna Loy, which is one of the probs).  But I get ahead of myself.

Here's the tax part of the mystery: Before Whitney and MacLeod were partners in accounting, MacLeod handled the tax case of a former bootlegger. His bootlegging was past statute of limitations, but the bootlegger still owed taxes on the moneys he received. The bootlegger gets the ruling from the IRS, feels he has grounds to appeal, but dies before he gets a chance (Or tell MacLeod what those grounds were). Years pass. Now they are five days away from the deadline for appealing the fine. MacLeod discovers that yes, the bootlegger did have a case for an appeal, to the tune of half a million dollars, which would go his (beautiful) daughter, with a hefty percentage for the accountants who discovered this. And now MacLeod is murdered.

So, this is like the Thin Man in that we stay with the victim for a while, and MacLeod is a complete a-hole. He is mean to his employees. He is cheating on his wife. He bullies his partner. He is a jerk. There are therefore a lot of suspects who want dead, including, after a couple chapters, the author and the reader. And I can see why the Lovely B left this book to rot after one chapter. I was rolling my eyes after the second, but pressed on.

And it is OK. No, it is not the great first appearance of an author and character. I have no burning desire to know about Whit Whitney's further adventures or even to read It Takes a Thief. If you read it like watching an old black and white film you can manage it. There are a couple places where you say "Hey, wait a minute" for something that is just glossed over in the text. I guessed the initial murderer, and ultimately think I had a better idea of who was responsible for the later shootings (oh yes, there is a lot of gunplay in this book) than the author had. His handling of female characters is ham-handed at best, but the exist to support/tempt Whit Whitney, all-American accountant.

One of the stories told in the introduction is that Dodge was reading slushpile mysteries for his wife and said, "Hey, I can do that." And the fact that his wife worked for a publisher kinda gave him a leg up on the opportunity so publish said book. Similarly, reading encourages me to think that the LB and I could write a better tax mystery. So if that happens, this book is partially to blame.

More later,

Friday, May 01, 2020

Plague Books: Philosopher King

Prosper's Demon - KJ Parker 2019, TOR Books

Provenance: This was in the box of books sent from TOR that I mentioned here. I promised I would read a couple other books in the box, and this was one. Some day I will explain why I feel a responsibility to read books sent to me, but that's not for today.

Review: Out in the virtual world of the Greater Web, the Orc Discussion is back. This is a frequent argument that explodes across the Internet every so often (and did so before there was an Internet). It quickly spirals out into numerous sub-discussions, digressions, and tangents. It allows people to complain bitterly about people that don't agree with them. It has applied to a number of different fantasy and science fiction projects and to a number of species. Right now, it applies to orcs and D&D.

The short version of this argument is:  Are orcs (or whoever), being portrayed as being universally horrible, evil creatures, racist? Or spreading it out to its ultimate extension, is "All X are Y" a racist statement?

Yes, it is. What matters is what you do with it. As far as fiction is concerned, we have some options. Some writers subvert the idea, some reject it utterly, some invert it, and some accept it as a base-line rule for their universe and sees where it takes them. KJ Parker does the last one, and tells a good and disturbing story.

In Prosper's Demons, the "other" are demons. Yes, it is easier to say "All DEMONS are EVIL" than orcs, since that is pretty much a core concept with demons. Parker's demons are immortal, intangible, and  very, very evil. Possessing people, inflicting great pain, and making them do unspeakable things-kinda evil. Our narrator is a exorcist, who has been fighting demons since literally before he was born. He's definitely dedicated to the proposition that All DEMONS are EVIL, and admits he is a horrible person from where that dedication takes him.

And the demons he fights are, well, evil. At the book's start, an old demonic combatant has taken control of the narrator (when he wasn't looking) and framed him for murder. But when the exorcist tracks down the old foe (demons are immortal - they can be driven out (usually at high cost to the host) but not killed) the foe sounds like an abused partner - hurt, wounded, and bullied. And yeah, our narrator is a cruel bully. No common ground possible here, and he LIKES hurting demons.

So the old foe finds another lodging. In a baby. Actually in the newborn heir of the local Emperor. Pulling the demon out will kill the kid, which would be a bad thing for our narrator's continued survival. As a bonus, the kid is going to be raised by the wisest man in the kingdom, who will turn the child into a perfect Philosopher King. And this wise man, Prosper, is ALSO possessed, by a different demon, one our exorcist has never met before.

But this new demon has been helping Prosper, keeping him focused, and helping him in his creativity. Doing things that are good for the kingdom and humanity in general. It is all part of a long-term plan that will come to fruition centuries after our exorcist is dust. Prosper is effectively DaVinci, right down to building a huge bronze horse, but enhanced and more effective. An effective Prosper is a good thing. What it boils down to is: will you deal with demons if it promises good things?

Prosper's Demons is a slender book, little more than the novella at the back end of an issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The story is nicely packed and neatly presented. The writing is dagger-sharp and the characters (including the demons) are well-limned. It is worth hunting down.

More later,