In the small town of Binghamton, New York there spins a 1925 carousel that once inspired Rod Serling and has since become a portal into… the Twilight Zone.Read the rest
Mur Lafferty is one of the worst-kept secrets in science fiction and fantasy publishing. "Secret" in that her fiction has not been widely published (until now). "Worst-kept" in that she has been such a force of nature -- the podcaster's podcaster, author of a huge corpus of excellent self-published work, and a skilled editor currently running Escape Pod -- that anyone who's been paying attention has known that there were great things coming from her.
Great things have come from her. The Shambling Guide to New York City is the first volume in a new series of books about Zoe Norris, a book editor who stumbles into a job editing a line of travel guides for monsters, demons, golem-makers, sprites, death-gods and other supernatural members of the coterie, a hidden-in-plain-sight secret society of the supernatural.
The volume opens with a desperate, out-of-work Zoe prowling the streets of New York, looking for a publishing job -- any publishing job. She finds herself chasing down a mysterious advertisement for an editor for Underground Press, which turns out to be the hobby-business of an ancient vampire with a modern idea. Phil, the owner, wants to produce the first-ever line of tour-guides for travelling coterie. And it just so happens that Zoe's last job was editing a successful line of (human) travel guides, a gig she excelled at and would have held still save for her philandering boss, who neglected to mention that he was married (to a psycho police chief!) before he seduced her.
After being rebuffed, Zoe bulls her way into the job, only to discover that she has bitten off more than she can chew -- or rather, that several monsters are vying for chance to bite off a rather large chunk of her. Chief among them is a sleazy incubus who is fixated on having sex with her and feeding off her sexual energy (workplace harassment is complicated in the coterie).
From this, the story is off and running, and it never pauses for breath -- there's love, war, humor and a lot of heart, and by the time it's done, you know exactly why so many writers have been buzzing about Mur Lafferty for so many years. It's as strong a debut as I can remember reading, and I can't wait for the follow-on volumes.
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a recent graphic novel adaptation of the classic 1928 HP Lovecraft story of the same name, masterfully executed by INJ Culbard.
The dirty secret of the Cthulhu mythos is that their originator, HP Lovecraft, wasn't a very good writer. In addition to his unfortunate tendency to embrace his era's backwards ideas about race and gender, Lovecraft was also fond of elaborate, tedious description that obscured the action and dialog. Which is a pity, because Lovecraft did have one of the great dark imaginations of literature, a positive gift for conjuring up the most unspeakable, unnameable (and often unpronounceable) horrors of the genre, so much so that they persist to this day.
Enter INJ Culbard, whose work adapting various Sherlock Holmes stories into graphic novels for Self-Made Hero press I've reviewed here in the past. Culbard is a fine storyteller and artist, and makes truly excellent use of the medium to deliver a streamlined Lovecraft, one where the protracted, over-elaborated descriptions are converted to dark, angular drawings that manage to capture all the spookiness, without the dreariness.
This is really the best way to enjoy Lovecraft.
Philip Pullman — best know for his Dark Materials series — has written a new edition of the Brothers Grimm stories, called Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version. It’s the 200th anniversary of the Grimm collection, and Pullman’s edition includes author’s notes and Aarne–Thompson classifications.Read the rest
Daniel Pinkwater's Bushman Lives is another of Pinkwater's marvellous novels for young adults (and adults!) in which a misfit narrator embraces his inner weirdo and finds odd joy. Harold Knishke is a young man in late 1950s Chicago who finds himself with a lot of spare time thanks to weird political patronage at his high-school, which results in him serving as a corrupt hall monitor who can excuse himself from school grounds on his own recognizance. One day, he quits flute lessons, sells his flute to his relieved instructor, and uses the money to take up life-drawing classes at a beatnik art school across the street from a mysterious whitewashed house whose paint is constantly being replenished by mysterious, hissing humanoids all dressed in white wrapping.
Woven into this narrative is the story of Geets Hildebrand, Harold's best friend, who runs away to join the Navy. Geets and Harold share an obsession with Bushman, the Lincoln Park Zoo's storied gorilla, a tragic and dignified figure. Geets is discharged from the Navy and discovers a secret society of rural misfits in a state park who tell him about a hidden castle on a hidden island in the middle of a lake.
Harold's life is one odd thing after another. He meets a young woman training to be a wise-woman who hips him to Willem de Kooning and then gets him a mentor who is obsessed with mural-painting and baking potatoes. He is inducted into an artist's workshop in a mysterious transdimensional building. He learns that there is a folk song about him, but can't make out the lyrics.
But most of all, Harold learns about art -- about the techniques of visual art, about the weird phonies that haunt the art world, but most importantly (and movingly) about the drive to make art and the thing that art does for its audiences.
Daniel Pinkwater and his wife Jill are both visual artists, and Bushman Lives is, more than anything, a book about art, and a very good one. I'd read Pinkwater all day long even if his absurdist fairy tales were nothing more than odd little stories, but as Bushman Lives (and his other works) proves, Pinkwater's absurdism is a delivery system for profound and important insight that stay with you for years and decades.
Bushman Lives was serialized online prior to publication, and really rewards your attention.
I wrote about Sailor Twain, Mark Siegel's beautiful, haunting serialized graphic novel when it began. Since then, the story of a New York steamship captain who is haunted by his love for a mermaid has run its course, and today it has been published in a single, handsome hardcover volume from FirstSecond.
Sailor Twain tells the story of Captain Twain of the Lorelei, which plies its trade up and down the Hudson valley, while the ship's owner, a dissolute Frenchman, seduces the wives of the gentry in the owner's cabin. Captain Twain's own beloved wife is wasting with some unspecified disease on land, and he works to raise money to send her to specialists. He's a good man, beset with tragedy, and he has forgotten how to write the poetry he once loved.
And then comes the day when he spies a mermaid clinging to the deck of the Lorelei, gravely wounded. He pulls her from the sea and into his cabin, and everything changes for Sailor Twain. The poetry comes back, and at his request, she never sings for him, never puts him under her siren spell. But still, he is hers.
Out spills a mystery, a story about seduction and duty, mythology and gender, dreams lost and dreams forgotten, and the lure of magic and wonder. Siegel's illustrations are charcoal drawings that fearlessly mix highly detailed, realistic depictions with cartoons, impressionistic smears, and caricature, and they are moody and grey and dreamlike, the perfect match for the story.
This is a stupendous work, a beautiful and sad and lovely thing. If you don't believe me, go read it online for free and see for yourself.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L'Engle's justly loved young adult novel about children who must rescue a dimension-hopping physicist who has been trapped by a malignant intelligence bent on bringing conformity to the universe.
Hill and Wang's A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel is Hope Larson's really wonderful and worthy adaptation of the original. Larson is very faithful to the original text, and the graphic form really suits the story, as it allows for direct illustration of some of the more abstract concepts (such as the notion of folding space in higher dimensions to attain faster-than-light transpositions of matter).
But Larson does more than capture the abstract with her graphics. L'Engle's charm and gift was in her ability to marry the abstract with the numinous -- to infuse stories about math and physics with so much heart, heartbreak, bravery, sorrow and joy that they changed everyone who read them. Larson does a brilliant job of capturing this crucial element of L'Engle's style.
I read this book aloud to my four year old daughter over a couple weeks' worth of bedtimes. There were plenty of times when I was sure that the nuances of the story were going over her head (she didn't come out of the experience with any sense of what a tesseract is!) but her interest never, ever wavered. That's because Larson's illustrations do such a fine job of showing the emotional arc of L'Engle's characters that even a small child could not help but be drawn into the drama. In fact, reading this book turned out to be both a treat and a chore, because every night's session ended with her demanding that I read more. And when we finished the book and closed the cover, she took it from my hands, turned it over, handed it back to me and said, "Again."
Hard to argue with that.
Hill and Wang were kind enough to give us exclusive access to chapter two, which you'll find below, past the jump!
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There is the long-awaited sequel to Cat Valente's debut novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and it delivers on all the promise of that book, which is one of the strongest fantasy novels for young readers I've had the pleasure of getting lost in.
September, the young heroine of Circumnavigated, is back in the mundane world when she chases a green wind across the Nebraska prairie and returns to her beloved Fairyland. But it's not Fairyland as she remembered it: her shadow -- lost on a previous adventure -- has become the Hollow Queen of the Underworld, and is using her minion, the terrible Alleyman, to steal all of Fairyland's shadows and with them, Fairyland's magic. Equipped with a magic ration-book and a few scant adventurer's supplies, September runs to the Underworld for a series of Adventures, in an attempt to foil her shadow's evil and restore the natural order to Fairyland above.
But this is a Valente novel, so nothing is at seems. There's as much Phantom Tollbooth here as there is Narnia, a disorienting but familiar sense of story-ness as September travels slantwise through the underworld, shot through with menace and heroism. You never know what's coming next in Fell Beneath, and the most roundabout and whimsical turns always come back around to the main story and its payoff.
As masterful as the first novel, and with a reprise of Ana Juan's illustrations, this is a most worthy sequel. I'm also excited to note that there's an unabridged, DRM-free MP3CD audiobook edition, because this is one of those fairytales, like Gaiman's Stardust, that you want to have read aloud to you.
If your fancy is tickled by this, don't miss Deathless, Valente's fantasy for adults about the Siege of Leningrad.
Former Talking Heads frontman and all-round happy mutant David Byrne has written several good books, but his latest, How Music Works, is unquestionably the best of the very good bunch, possibly the book he was born to write. I could made good case for calling this How Art Works or even How Everything Works.
Though there is plenty of autobiographical material How Music Works that will delight avid fans (like me) -- inside dope on the creative, commercial and personal pressures that led to each of Byrne's projects -- this isn't merely the story of how Byrne made it, or what he does to turn out such great and varied art. Rather, this is an insightful, thorough, and convincing account of the way that creativity, culture, biology and economics interact to prefigure, constrain and uplift art. It's a compelling story about the way that art comes out of technology, and as such, it's widely applicable beyond music.
Byrne lived through an important transition in the music industry: having gotten his start in the analog recording world, he skilfully managed a transition to an artist in the digital era (though not always a digital artist). As such, he has real gut-feel for the things that technology gives to artists and the things that technology takes away. He's like the kids who got their Apple ][+s in 1979, and keenly remember the time before computers were available to kids at all, the time when they were the exclusive domain of obsessive geeks, and the point at which they became widely exciting, and finally, ubiquitous -- a breadth of experience that offers visceral perspective.
There were so many times in this book when I felt like Byrne's observations extended beyond music and dance and into other forms of digital creativity. For example, when Byrne recounted his first experiments with cellular automata exercise for dance choreography, from his collaboration with Noemie Lafrance:
1. Improvise moving to the music and come up with an eight-count phrase (in dance, a phrase is a short series of moves that can be repeated).
2. When you find a phrase you like, loop (repeat) it.
3. When you see someone else with a stronger phrase, copy it.
4. When everyone is doing the same phrase, the exercise is over.
It was like watching evolution on fast-forward, or an emergent lifeform coming into being. At first the room was chaos, writhing bodies everywhere. At first the room was chaos, writhing bodies everywhere. Then one could see that folks had chosen their phrases, and almost immediately one could see a pocket of dancers who had all adopted the same phrase. The copying had already begun, albeit in just one area. This pocket of copying began to expand, to go viral, while yet another one now emerged on the other side of the room. One clump grew faster than the other, and within four minutes the whole room was filled with dancers moving in perfect unison. Unbelievable! It only took four minutes for this evolutionary process to kick in, and for the "strongest" (unfortunate word, maybe) to dominate.
Read the rest
Even if you don’t immediately recognize the words “prion” or “Kuru”, the history of these pathologies has seeped into popular culture like a horrifying fairy tale. But it’s true: a tribe in New Guinea ate the dead, not as Hollywood-style savages but to respect the dead. Upon death, you took a part of them into yourself. And that included the brain.Read the rest
Sometime in November, Texas will open a stretch of toll road south of Austin where the speed limit will be 85 miles per hour.It will be the highest speed limit in America.Read the rest
Jason Mazzone's Copyfraud and Other Abuses of Intellectual Property Law isn't just another book about how the expansion of copyright and trademark law has harmed innovation, free speech and creativity. Instead, Mazzone -- the youngest faculty member in Brooklyn law school's history to hold an endowed chair -- argues that the real problem is that copyright law isn't enforced enough. Mazzone persuasively argues that the room that copyright makes for public expression and innovation -- through fair use and other defenses -- offer exactly the kind of safety valve that copyright's monopoly on expression demands.
However, as Mazzone points out, there is virtually no penalty for unjustly claiming that these public freedoms don't exist. The entertainment industry can slather its products in dire warnings that ignore fair use and make misleading threats for users who lend, re-use or sample the media they buy. They can demand licenses for minimal uses, for works in the public domain, and for fair uses. They can assert absurd trademark claims. They can threaten baseless lawsuits by the bushel-load -- and all without any risk to them.
Mazzone's point is that without a robust set of regulations and punishments for companies that claim to own what rightfully belongs to the public, this will only expand. After all, falsely claiming that your public domain sheet music can't be copied by a choir means that you get to sell a lot of copies of your sheet music -- absent a penalty for such a fraudulent claim, who would abstain from it?
Mazzone writes with the clarity of Lessig, Samuelson and Boyle -- the gold standards for public, lay-friendly copyright writing -- and uses infamous cases to make his point, from the scam that cost George Clinton his copyrights to the fraudulent claims made by Mattel against artists who make fun of Barbie. He unpicks the intricate tangle of state and federal law, precedent and norms, and sets out a series of problems and then proposes a set of sane, implementable solutions that could be turned into law today.
By offering simple solutions to these problems, Mazzone shows that the theft of the public domain isn't due to the impossibility of getting the law right. Rather, it is a combination of depraved indifference by lawmakers and unchecked greed by corporations. Reading Mazzone gives you the idea that the technical question of solving copyright is actually rather simple -- though finding the political will may prove much harder.
9/7/2012: Updated with feedback from moot
4chan, the Internet's long-time dumping ground and butt of many a joke, is getting serious about software by making their biggest public-facing code change in nearly a decade, introducing an API and a bunch of new functionality.
Given its reputation, many commentators have already written this off with a shrug and a laugh. But 4chan is also one of the web's most popular and influential communities. It's the source of so many Internet-age cultural trends that even your grandma may be dimly aware that the clever picture she posted on her Facebook was trawled a thousand copies ago from the dark depths of /mlp/. Given that there's big money in all this, the API offers businesses a direct line to the heart of the machine.
As a professional software developer and long time 4chan user, I think this is a pretty interesting development. I talked yesterday afternoon to some of those who worked on 4chan's code over the years and know a little about why this is such an important development.
Hal Johnson's Immortal Lycanthropes is a YA novel unlike any other. It's the story of Myron Horowitz, a horribly disfigured amnesiac orphan whose nice adoptive parents can't protect him from the savage beatings administered by the school bully every day. But then the bully is found bruised and battered and hurled through shatterproof glass, and Myron is found on the floor of the cafeteria, naked, with no sign of his clothes anywhere. And the adventure starts.
You see, Myron is an immortal lycanthrope, part of an ancient mythic race of human/animal hybrids -- one for every species of mammal -- who date back to the dawn of humanity. Nothing can kill him save another immortal in animal form, and there are plenty of those around, as it turns out. They have all come out of the woodwork to attempt to kidnap/kill/rescue/brainwash/claim/manipulate him, because he appears to be the first newborn immortal lycanthrope since the dawn of history.
Myron is off on a madcap trip across America, variously beaten and nearly killed and tricked and conned and even worshipped as he discovers the true nature of his race, and speculates about what animal might lurk within him.
Johnson has taken a slight idea -- his editor says that the book's genesis was a sarcastic remark about writing YA fiction, as in, "What, you want me to write about immortal lycanthropes or something?" -- and made something perfectly wonderful and wonderfully perfect out of it. A few chapters in, I flipped to the beginning of the book looking for an "about the author," only to notice that he'd dedicated the book to Daniel Pinkwater, who is the all-time world champion of weird amazing mind melting brilliant YA fiction. I knew then that I had found a writer who was going to pierce me like a very funny, very weird arrow.
And pierce me he did. Take one part Lemony Snicket, one part Boy's Life adventure, three measures of Daniel Pinkwater, a dash of Tex Avery mixed with Carlos Castenada, and you'd get something like Immortal Lycanthropes.
When I was twelve years old, my brain was blown clear out of my skull and into an erratic orbit by a Daniel Pinkwater novel called Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars. If I wanted to have the same effect on a bright 12 year old proto-mutant today, I might just hand her or him a copy of Immortal Lyncathropes. For the win.
It's my great pleasure to welcome Wendy and Richard Pini to Boing Boing, where they'll be publishing the next chapter of their long-running fantasy epic Elfquest—online-first for the first time!
You may also know Wendy from her anime-style retelling of Edgar Allan Poe's Masque of The Red Death — which even got her in trouble with Facebook over cartoon boobs.
The first page of Elfquest: The Final Quest's prologue will appear here at Boing Boing on Monday. In the meantime, catch up with the story so far (all 6000 pages of it!), free of charge, at the series' official homepage.
After the jump, I've pasted in part of an item I once wrote (for the late, lamented Ectoplasmosis (Update: reborn on tumblr!)) about why this comic series is so awesome. Then follows our press release. Read the rest
Read the rest
The Joides Resolution is a large boat—more than 450 feet long and almost 70 feet wide. That’s small compared to a lot of cruise ships, but big enough to house and feed and provide work space for 126 people. It’s a floating city, with a movie theater, helipad, hospital, cafeteria, laboratories, and a giant drilling rig. But even a big boat can start to feel small when you have nowhere else to go, and no land in sight, for two whole months.Read the rest
Planesrunner -- a rollicking, multidimensional tale of a young boy who holds the key to infinite universes, seeking to rescue his physicist father from sinister powers -- finished on a brutal cliffhanger, leaving its readers gasping and cursing for more. Now we have it.
In Enemy, there's a lot more of what made Planesrunner great -- tremendous action scenes, cunning escapes, genius attacks on the ways that multidimensional travel might be weaponized, horrific glimpses of shadowy powers and sinister technologies.
But Enemy also has more of what makes McDonald's adult fiction some of the best work I've ever read: a gifted ear for poesie that makes the English language sing, the unapologetic presumption of the reader's ability to understand what's going on without a lot of hand-holding, and a technological mysticism that never explicitly says when the literal stops and the fantasy starts.
In Enemy, Everett, the young hero of Planesrunner, is confronted with multiple versions of himself from different worlds, all facing different versions of his crisis, and some not on his side. McDonald's handling of this is deft, going beyond the good Spock/evil Spock cliches and showing us how two "good" kids could start as multidimensional twins and end as mortal enemies.
If you held off on reading Planesrunner because you didn't want to commit to a series without knowing if the author could keep up the quality, have no fear. McDonald has proven himself handily. And if you read Planesrunner like me and have been slavering for the sequel ever since, rejoice -- the time is at hand!
Here are the first five chapters, courtesy of the kind folks at Pyr!
The 1980s had many surreal and outré comic-book stars. I recall particularly following The Tick, Concrete, and Nexus. They were respectively a nigh-invulnerable, possibly mentally ill superhero with a chubby accountant sidekick in a moth-themed flying suit; a writer whose brain was transplanted by aliens (themselves possibly escaped slaves) into a nearly invulnerable rock-like body often performing missions of mercy; and a man (later others, including men, women, and children) picked by a nearly omnipotent being residing in the center of a planet to atone the genocide of his father by being forced to be an almost indestructible and thoroughly powerful superhero, lest he face disabling pain.
You catch the theme here, right? Omnipotence, invulnerability, superhero—all but the Tick reluctant. Into that mix, Flaming Carrot was something altogether different.
Legends of Zita the Space Girl: a worthy followup to the most excellent kids' science fiction graphic novel
Back in June, I reviewed the delightful science fiction kids' comic Zita the Spacegirl and mentioned that the sequel would be out in September. That sequel, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, comes out today, and is a most worthy follow-on to a most excellent kids' comic.
The first volume of Zita introduced us to Zita, a regular girl from Earth, throws herself through a transdimensional portal to rescue a friend, and comes to ally herself with a motley band of robots, aliens, a giant mouse, and a rogueish showman named Piper, fighting off a death-cult that is determined to perform a human sacrifice to avert a deadly asteroid impact.
In Legend, Zita is now a celebrity, travelling from world to world with Piper and her friends, being exhibited to gawkers who want a glimpse of the hero who saved Scriptorium. On one nameless space-station -- a worldlet every bit as weird and hilarious as the setting in book one -- Zita meets a very special admirer amidst the throng. Her new friend is a discontinued doppelganger robot with the power to assume the likeness of anyone it meets. The poor robot has been literally doomed to the scrapheap, the last of its kind, and when it meets Zita, they swap identities, and Zita gets a moment of much-needed respite from the crowds.
This seems like a great deal to Zita (and her giant mouse friend, Pizzicato) until the robot decides to make the switch permanent, and takes off with Piper and Zita's friends to attempt the rescue of yet another world from an invasion of bloodthirsty Star Hearts. Zita is taken in by another band of travelling performers, who, like Piper, are more than they seem.
What follows is another action-packed, high tension adventure story that is marvellously inventive, beautifully drawn, and filled with both comedy and real pathos that had both me and my four year old very worried for both the heroes and the villains in this story.
As I said, this is a most worthy follow-on to a fabulous first volume, and it ends in a way that makes it clear that creator Ben Hatke has more volumes to come.
One of my favorite books is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. With simple comic art, McCloud presents the history of sequential comics, and how they work. It's as much about psychology as it is about the way comics use standard structural elements that work on a subconscious level to tell a story. A cartoon version of McCloud serves as the narrator of the book, speaking directly to the reader, which is very effective.
I'm also a big fan of Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe, a series of comic books that, as the title suggests, presents the history of the universe from the big bang up to the present era. It combines factual history with a bit of humor (which is always appropriately in context).
Both McCloud and Gonick came to mind when I read Economix: How Our Economy Works (and Doesn't Work), by Michael Goodwin and by illustrated Dan E. Burr. Told as a history, it ties important world events (wars, revolutions, technological progress, resource depletion, pollution, etc.) to their economic consequences, and it explains the far-reaching (and often unintended effects) of economic policy decisions on people and the planet. Dan E. Burr's appealing illustrations add punch, humor, and clarity to Goodwin's already-excellent storytelling skills.
Unknown Fields (UF) is a design studio, originating in London’s Architectural Association, that "ventures out on annual expeditions to the ends of the earth exploring unreal and forgotten landscapes, alien terrains and obsolete ecologies." Right now, Mark Pilkington, author of Mirage Men and publisher of Strange Attractor, is leading this busload of architects, writers, filmmakers and artists in an exploration of the mythic landscape of the American Southwest, and the stories that it has inspired. Their trajectory takes them from Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque New Mexico to Black Rock City, Nevada, via sites of military, architectural and folkloric significance. Mark is sending us occasional postcards from the edge. - David Pescovitz
The Trestle, Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Constructed over four years in the late 1950s at a then-astronomical cost of $58 million, the Trestle is still the largest all-wooden structure in the world, comprising over 6 million feet of timber. Part of the Air Force’s research into the after effects of a nuclear blast, a range of aircraft, including huge B-52 bombers and Air Force One were hauled up onto the Trestle, where they would be bombarded with electromagnetic pulse waves (EMP) fired from an emitter on either side.
EMP waves travel long distances in a very short amount of time and can seriously disrupt electronic systems, as we also know from powerful solar emissions. Understanding how EMP might affect the functioning of retaliatory nukes, bombers or command and control aircraft was therefore an essential part of post-apocalyptic preparations.
Every element of the Trestle, right down to its oversized nuts and bolts, had to be wooden so that none of its own components would interfere with the effects of the EMP wave on the aircraft being tested (though apparently there are some small metal o-ring components deep in the mix). Inspecting all the joints took a dedicated team a whole year; as soon as they had finished it was time to start again.
A unique monument to Cold War rigor and ingenuity, reminiscent of a huge fairground ride, perhaps the Cyclone, Coney Island’s wooden roller coaster, or a wooden labyrinth, the Trestle is now a condemned structure, too unstable to use, too expensive to dismantle. Today it provides a home to local wildlife, including a colony of great horned owls who can be heard screeching from within its depths. Our guide tells us that she likes to collect the skulls of their prey, which they leave scattered around the base of the structure.
Amy Reading's The Mark Inside is perhaps the best book I've ever read on con artists and con artistry, a retelling of one of the classic stories of the bunco boom that marked the start of the 20th century in America. Reading builds her book around the life story of J Frank Norfleet, a soft-spoken, thrifty Texas rancher who built his fortune up from nothing, only to lose it all to a gang of swindlers. Norfleet became obsessed with the men who'd victimized him, and became a nationally famous vigilante, crisscrossing America bent on capturing and jailing the whole gang -- and any other con-men he met along the way.
Norfleet himself was transformed by his quest, which awoke in him a kind of inner showman and bunco artist. He delighted in showing off for the press and for audiences, spinning yarns as adeptly as the con artists he hunted. In order to get cooperation from government prosecutors and lawmen, he had to flimflam them, too, convincing them with carefully scripted cons of his own. Reading places Norfleet's con within the wider context of the con-artists who ruled America and the shifting American attitude towards wagering and speculating, showing how the whole nation was moving itself from a republican thriftiness to a nation that mythologized plungers and get-rich-quickmen who made a fortune by dicing with dollars in markets and at the faro tables.
I've read dozens of books about and by con artists (the bunco boom had its own publishing wing, and every fast talker who lived long enough seems to have penned a memoir after the fashion of The Yellow Kid Weil). Not a one of them captures the pathos and bathos, the absurdity and temerity, the virtuosity and the venality of the con man quite like Reading. She writes with the lyricism of a magic realist, but with the rigor of a historian, and so much of her best analysis springs from her explorations of the differences between different accounts of the same events.
Books like Where Wizards Stay Up Late and The Right Stuff and The Information perfectly captured their own individual moments in time -- turning points in the modern history of the Earth. The Mark Inside stands with these as an engrossing and illuminating account of the moment at which speculation -- not thrift -- became the order of the day in America, and it's thrilling and hilarious by turns and when you're done, you understand the past and the present better.
I stared, face lathered up, sweat dripping, hand shaking, into the fogging mirror in my bathroom almost every day for over 2 weeks before I built up the courage to actually put the 4" razor to my face and take a swipe.
The fact that I hadn't shaved on any regular basis for any period in my life because of the bloody mess that inevitably ensued didn't help matters, but mostly I was just afraid of slicing my jugular wide open and being mocked after my death for as the idiot who even attempted this in the first place.
I took a deep breath and went for it. Read the rest
Read the rest
Here's my essay in a series of essays about enthralling books. See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
This twisted psychological suspense novel had me from the first page and I read it every spare moment I had until I finished it. It begins with a man named Nick's description of his morning on the day of his fifth wedding anniversary. Nick and Amy were once bon vivant magazine writers in New York, but the print media implosion put an end to their fun life, and for a variety of reasons ("Blame the economy, blame bad luck, blame my parents, blame your parents, blame the Internet, blame people who use the Internet") they end up in Carthage, Missouri with Nick running a dive bar (using the remainder of Amy's recently obliterated trustfund) with his sister Margo. Later that day, Amy disappears from their house, leaving behind signs of a struggle. The police, and TV viewers around the country, suspect Nick did it.
The second chapter is from Amy's diary, seven years before her disappearance, in which she giddily describes meeting the handsome and funny Nick at a party in Brooklyn.
The chapters alternate between Nick's account of his life after Amy's disappearance, and Amy's diaries entries leading up to the event. We see a happy relationship deteriorate over time. We also see signs of psychopathy and deceit start creeping in as the story unfolds. Since this is a suspense novel, things aren't necessarily what they seem (or are they?) and there are major twists and surprises along the way.
Even as a straight-ahead thriller, Gillian Flynn's novel succeeds with a tight plot that's rich but easy to follow. What made it extra enjoyable for me is Flynn's dark sense of humor, insight into relationships, cultural observations, and developed characters. As messed up as Flynn's characters are, they are believable, unpredictable (even to themselves) and complex, and that's what keeps things interesting. I've read other reviews of Gone Girl in which readers have complained that Amy and Nick are too unlikable to care about. I disagree. I care about them the same way I care about Breaking Bad's Walter White, Mad Men's Don Draper, and Tony Soprano: pathologically manipulative jerks who reveal a shred of humanity often enough that you can relate to them, especially since we all have some element of a dark side in us.
I also liked Amy’s rant about “cool girls.” Here's an excerpt:
Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl. Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men -- friends, coworkers, strangers -- giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them.”
Flynn's previous novels, Dark Places, and Sharp Objects, are queued up on my reading list.
Katherine Losse was present at the creation. Employee 51 at Facebook, the English major became first a major player in the company's customer service team and then rose to prominence in i18n, Facebook's internationalization initiative. She ended her seven year career there as Mark Zuckerberg's blogger. She mimicked his voice in posts and emails, starting with "Hey Everybody" and ending in world domination.
Now, Losse offers a book about her experience there. Covering the period between 2005 and 2012, she sunk into the soft comfort of corporate life just as early Facebook's miasmic jelly hardened into serious business. Losse, because she's not a wonk, is the kind of person that you want writing about this kind of rise: she writes like she's working out a Lorrie Moore story set at Xerox/PARC and, as a result, she leaves out the nerdiness and attempts to replace it with humanity. Read the rest
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Ever since the Keystone XL Pipeline (originally slated to transport Tar Sand bitumen from Alberta to Nebraska) was stalled, the attention on finding a new delivery route for this tar sand oil has focused around my own neck of the woods, British Columbia. And it seems like every time I open the paper, there's some new story about big oil PR shenanigans [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]. All of this, of course, makes you wonder what a big oil PR session actually entails, and whether a memo like the fictitious one below (a.k.a. me having a little fun), is not so far from the truth... Read the rest
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Batman: Earth One is a reboot of the Batman story written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Gary Frank. It's a timely book, coinciding with the conclusion of the trilogy of Christopher Nolan Batman films, and it offers a very good entry to the series for people who haven't followed it closely until now.
We've seen a lot of remixes and retellings of the Batman origin story, and I think this is my favorite to date. Johns dispenses with some of the less plausible aspects of the Batman myth, and presents us with a Gotham that is out of control, corrupt, dark and glorious. There's a haunted house, there are serial killers, Hollywood phonies, and a mayor named Oswald Cobblepot.
The book moves swiftly, hits all the right emotional notes, and is beautifully made and illustrated. I picked my copy up at Secret Headquarters on a recent trip to LA, on staff recommendation (I've never gotten a bum steer from SHQ). It's got me excited about Batman comics for the first time in 20 years.