Ring My Bell

Injection Volume One by Warren Ellis, drawn by Declan Shalvey. Image, 2015. 9781632154798. Contains Injection #1 – #5. Publisher’s Rating: M / Mature.

Sarah: The pitch for Injection. (Although you sorta don’t find out ’till halfway through the book what the premise is…)
Gene: I know! But you have to have the pitch.
S: I would make someone promise: you have to read the book if I tell them why, but then they have to forget before they read the book. So: wait six months after reading this…
G: Or, like me, put it on hold at the library and then fail to remember why.
S: So a small group of people from different backgrounds in government and computing and folklore and magic get together and ask, what is the path of the future? What’s going to happen next? And what they see is a flatline. After all of this huge technological and cultural change, we’re going to go into this big lull. They try to find out how to change the world so that that doesn’t happen. And they come up with this awesome horrible idea, to combine artificial intelligence with magic with computer learning…
G: They animate an AI but they use magic, and then they release it into the internet.
S: And all of a sudden, things are happening!
G: And it turns out it can warp reality.
S: Oops. They call it the Injection. And not many people outside these folks know what’s going on.
G: Whatever it does looks like magic. Continue reading “Ring My Bell”

Gene & Sarah

George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl. Touchstone, 2017. 9781501162893. 288 pp.

Gene: This is George and Lizzy by Nancy Pearl.
Sarah: Who we’ve both met and both like.
G: Who I would say is a buddy of mine.
S: I own her action figure and the T-shirt that you made of her.
G: She’s awesome. I ran into her husband at my local library in September — they live close to me — when Nancy was on her book launch tour. He teaches a meditation class I need to take.
S: I feel like the few things I know about her I noticed reflected in the book, and there are probably going to be more, and the meditation class is one of them.
G: Oh my god, I didn’t think about that. So, give me your pitch for this.
S: Lizzie, when she was in high school, well her friend came up with this idea that she thought was great…her friend dropped out because this idea was insane but Lizzie did it anyway.
G: What was the idea?
S: To sleep with every member of the high school football team. Well, not every member, but the starters. And they were going to divide the starters between them, which was 11 boys each, and then they’d flip for the last one…
G: The kicker.
S: …but because her friend dropped out Lizzie decided she would do all the starters. And it’s never totally clear why she does this except she’s super pissed off at her parents and maybe kind of hopes this will shock them into caring about her.
Continue reading “Gene & Sarah”

He was real

Is This Guy For Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman by Box Brown. First Second, 2017. 9781626723160.

(This conversation started with me talking about a British documentary show on Netflix called Embarrassing Bodies. Gene sends his daughter screenshots from it. You should watch it.)
Gene: I’m a recovering pro wrestling fan.
Sarah: Coming into this, I was like, he’s this comedian…
G: Did you like him?
S: Not my favorite but I respected his funny meta-comedy, practical joke sense of humor, but it wasn’t something I tuned in for.
G: I remember watching SNL when I was really little, I used to stay up all night watching TV. (This and letting me read anything I wanted are what I owe my parents for.) I watched the first season when it aired when I was 7. I remember seeing him do the Mighty Mouse thing. It was crazy.
S: I saw an HBO special he did that was all the hits, so I saw all of his famous bits compressed into like an hour.
G: I saw him on Taxi, too. I remember seeing him wrestle women. I remember seeing him apologize to his parents on Letterman.
S: I saw some of those too.
G: Weird, right?
S: Not as weird as Crispin Glover, but weird.
G: Glover never really seems to be having a good time. Andy Kaufman seemed to be having fun.
S: We start in Kaufman’s childhood, and it was funny to see so many of his later bits reflected in his childhood. Obsessed with Elvis, watching Mighty Mouse…and it didn’t feel artificial, it felt like we were finding out this was the kind of kid he was.
Continue reading “He was real”

The Prisoner

Hostage by Guy Delisle. Drawn & Quarterly, 2017. 9781770462793. 436pp.

Sarah: This is the story of when Christophe André was kidnapped and held hostage in the Caucuses when he was working for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). I know from his other books that Guy Delisle’s wife worked for MSF, which is why he was in Burma and wrote the book about living there. So Delisle has links to that group.
Gene: Is she his wife or partner? Maybe the latter?
Sarah: We’ll fact check.
Gene: We probably won’t.
Sarah: Okay.
Gene: This is the story of André being kidnapped and then enduring captivity.
Sarah: They show where he was taken while in “a small Russian republic west of Chechnya.” It was so interesting that the kidnapping…I think I’ve been too affected by efficient TV kidnappings. His kidnappers were bumbling. André knew there was a huge amount of cash in the office safe. His kidnappers didn’t.
Gene: They pretended to be police. They were not after the money, apparently.
Sarah: Or they didn’t know about it. But then later they asked for money for his release. And maybe more than was in the safe? But they could have had both. André had the key to the safe in his pants.
Gene: Yeah but who would think a medical NGO would have a safe full of money?
S: They had it to pay everyone’s salaries in cash. And if that was the norm there, maybe people would know that?
G: The thing I liked was that it opens with him talking to Delisle, so you know he survived. So after they picked him up, he was imagining the worst things happening. They made him get out of a car in the middle of nowhere and he imagined being shot in the back of the head. But there was not a sense of terror because we knew that didn’t happen.
S: And the book is hugely long. So you know there’s more to the story. But yeah, they took him to someone’s apartment and handcuffed him to a radiator. All there was in the room was a thin mattress and a radiator. And the only time he was released from his handcuffs was when he needed to eat or go to the bathroom.
G: The story is so long and so repetitive that it gives a sense of what it was like for him to be stuck there. Turning the page sometimes, and between the panels, there’s an amazing sense of time. It doesn’t feel like Delisle digitally copied panels, it feels like he drew each panel, even though many of them are so similar in the captivity sequences, over and over and over again. So I felt the effort.
I think it’s important to say when pitching this book, you have to set aside an hour or an hour and a half to read it all at once to get a sense of the story’s time.
S: Yeah.
G: I think it wouldn’t have worked as a prose book because you would have put it down and left it and then come back to it over and over again, as one does. But I didn’t. I read straight through.
S: Me, too.
G: Didn’t it feel compulsive? Like you had to?
S: Yes! Each day he hoped it would be the day he got released. And he honestly had this hope all the time. And when he started to lose heart, when he felt like everyone had forgotten about him, it brought me back to the Tehran hostages. There were people in the US who were saying, we need them to know they haven’t been forgotten. And I realized that was a real thing.
G: I love the light and darkness in panels. I love everything about the design. Andre’s internal dialogue just kind of floats on the panels, and the spoken dialogue, the word balloons, they don’t have borders. It all deadens the color palette, so that nothing is distinct or set apart. And as the nights get darker and the room does, there are slightly darker shades of blue and the grey. Delisle really plays with them. It looks so simple but it’s masterful.
S: There are numbers at the beginning of the sections that tell how long he’s been held, but he couldn’t always remember what day it was, though it was really important to him to hang on to that.
G: There were really tense moment where — I don’t remember how long he was held captive — weird things happened that broke up his captivity. Someone’s wife came in to sweep up his room.
S: He saw her one other time, too.
G: Another time the door was left open, and there was a kid in the hallway looking at him.
S: That was so hard for me to read. It wasn’t just that André was humiliated, chained to a radiator like a dog while this little kid just stared at him, but to me that this little kid was in a situation where it wasn’t weird that there was a hostage in the house. He didn’t go oh my god I need to call the police! It’s like, oh yeah, okay.
G: That’s not a good neighborhood to live in.
S: No!
G: For me the most harrowing moment was when he figured out the door was unlocked, and then tried to decide what to do. That was absolutely scary. He’d been trying to find a way to escape but suddenly, after becoming so real, his terror at the thought of being caught trying to escape and what his captors might do to him after that —
S: I felt so much of this. And every day he was drinking thin vegetable soup and tea, and that’s all they give him, and you could see his pants getting looser and looser. It wasn’t until much later that he realized they were falling down and he’d lost weight. But Delisle shows it.
This book terrified me. It was really well done.
G: It’s so unlike anything by Delisle that I’ve read. I fell in love with his books about living in foreign places — Pyongyang, Shenzhen, Jerusalem, and Burma. Did you ever see the strange little books he did for D&Q, the first of his that were published in English? Albert and the Others, Aline and the Others — so wacky, so strange.
S: I liked the ones about bad parenting!
G: Those are funny. But he did these wordless little books in French about a little boy named Louis that are amazing, too. (Louis Au Ski, Louis À La Plage) They’re in that beautifully big French graphic album format. It’s good to see Delisle can escape being pigeonholed as an author. He’s much more than the guy who wrote about living in foreign countries
S: I really want to give this book to adult book clubs.
G: Right. It belongs right up there with Safe Area Gorazde and The Photographer. And it reminds me a little of Alan’s War by Guibert, about an American soldier in World War II whose service was pretty boring.

Travels of a Brooklyn Boy

Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg: One Comedian’s Tour of Not-Quite-the-Biggest Cities in the World by Todd Barry. Gallery Books, 2017. 9781501117428.

Sarah: I recently read The Not-Quite States of America, too, so this is my year for “Not Quite” books. Todd Barry is a working comedian, really well established. I wouldn’t say he can work wherever he wants, but he does mention several times in the book that he opened for Louie CK at Madison Square Garden.
G: Right. He’s not super famous, but he’s been in a lot of movies.
S: People know him.
G: You would recognize him instantly. But it feels like he’s a comedian’s comedian.
S: I can see that.
G: One of the things people kept saying to him that he interpreted as “this show may not go well” was, “I’m a little worried you’re too smart for this audience.”
S: Yes. And he might be a little to smart for any audience. This is about his year of going to secondary markets, as he calls them. Not the big towns, but the next ones down or the college towns, partly because he likes playing those venues but also because he likes finding indie coffee shops…
G: Coffee shops that make him feel like he’s still in Brooklyn.
S: Yes! Which is kind of hilarious. He lives in Brooklyn and tries to have the same experience everywhere. Continue reading “Travels of a Brooklyn Boy”

I Dream Of Svið

The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Harper Voyager, 2016. 9780062444134. 464 pp.

Gene: The book we both read this month but that you haven’t finished yet.
Sarah: I’m still going to finish it. I really like it a lot. (Later: I did finish it, and I loved it even more.)
G: I knew you would. It’s fun.
S: It’s been a while since I read science fiction. And getting back into it, I noticed there’s a lot of explanation needed to establish how this world that’s not like the one we live in. And I found myself not annoyed by that in this book, which is a sign of a very good writer. It’s in there in more natural ways. Rosemary is joining a ship as a new crew member. She’s been really sheltered, she grew up on Mars, this is her first time in deep space, this is her first time meeting nonhumans, so people get to explain things to her about being in space, alien cultures, and there are little bits of a future Wikipedia that is also written and edited by volunteers to fill in the info we need to know as she needs it.
G: And she’s a person who has studied other cultures and languages, so she’s looking up information she needs in an informed way. But I think what’s funny is I thought, okay, there’s someone new to the ship and we’re going to see the crew through her eyes. And that’s kind of true, but it’s not as true as it would be in other science fiction novels.
S: Yeah. Because we get to see through all of the crewmembers’ points of view. I really liked that. Their ways of seeing things, what they know and don’t know, is very different.
G: So the basic plot of the book — and you can’t pitch this book on plot much — is: a kind of kluged together ship that punches wormholes though space…
S: They’re like the highway building crew of the future.
G: …travels around with a crew that’s not just humans. At the beginning Rosemary is welcomed onto the ship by Corbin, who is the grumpy outsider on the crew. By the end of the book (I hope this isn’t ruining anything) everyone is completely a family. They get a big contract to go to a war zone and they’re going to make a bunch of money to punch a hole from there. But very little of the book takes place in that setting. The plot is so secondary to the characters that it’s just about them.
Continue reading “I Dream Of Svið”

Pentomino the Giant

Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown. First Second, 2016. 9781626723153. 256pp.

Sarah: The most compelling, addictive video game ever invented had a super weird, soap opera style story about how it got out to the rest of the world from the Soviet Union. This is that story.
Gene: Did you play Tetris?
S: Absolutely! Oh god yes. Hours and hours. Did you ever get the Tetris dreams?
G: I did. I was a casual video game kid. But I mostly avoided it for some reason — I don’t know why. Maybe it reminded me too much of Arkanoid? What’s it called? It’s Pong with the blocks on top.
S: Oh yeah yeah — Breakout!
G: Right. Arkanoid is a branded version of that. It had power ups.
Then I played Tetris for about two days, and I totally had the dreams. I was obsessed. I couldn’t really sleep. It invaded my head. So I just stopped cold turkey. I have never stopped playing a video game before or since that I liked that much. But my brain clearly liked it too much.
S: I got a keychain version of it. It’s so simple you can put it on anything.
G: I hear they have condoms with little LED screens and that you can play Tetris on them.
S: Yeah, very small items. The intro to the book talked about games and what they mean in our minds and what competition means and he’s just talking about that this game boils down to some essential aspect of something our brains want to do, some way to solve problems.
G: You’re fitting things together. It’s like shelving books.
Continue reading “Pentomino the Giant”