You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Thursday, September 29, 2011


7 Billion Needles, Volume 17 Billion Needles, Volume 1 by Nobuaki Tadano
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tadano's manga announces that it is a homage to Hal Clement's Needle, a novel published in the early 1950's. The change is tone is obvious from the titles. Note Clement's title is "Needle," singular. I guess for today's manga market you need to up the ante by 6,999,999,999 extra needles.

Clement's novel was possibly the first to concern an alien living in a symbiotic relationship with an earthling. He's a "good alien" chasing a "bad alien," a motif that has been worked so often in the past sixty years that Tadano's nod to Clement, given how radically transformed the material is, is polite but hardly necessary. Clement's novel is good but a bit Hardy-Boyish. The gelatinous alien enters the boy's body while he sleeps on the beach, and the narrative is an SF detective story where boys out on their bicycles are always careful to be home in time for dinner. In the opening scene of the manga, Hikaru, a disaffected teenage girl who seldom takes off her headphones, is blown to pieces by the alien's crash landing. He knits her back together and explains that he and she must search out and destroy Maelstrom, the bad alien, before it kills all life on earth. Hikaru's response is, "Leave me alone."
She is more willing to pitch in after a massacre in the gym, during which Maelstrom briefly manifests itself as a dinosaur-like monster. "How about this!" he screams. "Humans tend to fear this kind of form."

Tadano's action sequences are as incoherent as any in a Michael Bey film. There's no build-up of tension, just lots of explosions and bloodshed. His best artwork are the cityscapes, schoolyards, and suburban neighborhoods that set up each scene.

Good triumphs, but there are four more books in the series so I assume Maelstrom will be back.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: SHOW UP, LOOK GOOD,, by Mark Wisniewski

Show Up, Look GoodShow Up, Look Good by Mark Wisniewski
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This may be the book that gets me into and out of the Rumpus Book Club in a single month. For the Rumpus club, you pay good money for an advance copy of the book of their choice, and then have the chance to discuss it on forums and eventually have a live web chat with the author,

I was left so cold by Show Up, Look Good that I am not inclined to participate in either of those activities. The advance copy come slathered with praise from notable readers who possibly read a different book than I did. I did not find it the "laugh-out-loud romp" described by Ben Fountain. Wisniewski's was not Jonathan Lethem's "riotously original voice." T. R. Hummer is right that the book is "part Carson McCullers, part Truman Capote, and part Elmore Leonard," but those parts never come together in a dynamic way.

The opening paragraph promises all the readerly pleasures Wisniewski's book delivers at best half-heartedly.

I know of  a secret murder, and  I have loved a speechless man, and sometimes I'd like to tell someone about how death and love have changed my life, but any of three thoughts give me pause. For one, if I talk about the murder, I myself could be killed. I can't know how true this is, but the speechless man said it was, and even though he disappointed me, I trusted him. Two, if someone's murdered, she's murdered, and talking about her will never change that. Then there's the reality that very few people care to face: unless you have majestic beauty and power, your secrets rarely matter to anyone but yourself.

That's the best part of the book.

Michelle is a thirty-something who breaks up with her boyfriend of eleven years when she catches him masturbating with a plastic vagina. She leaves Kankakee, Illinois for New York City, and promptly begins to live the life and have the kinds of -- somehow adventures doesn't seem the right word -- that Midwestern transplants should have in their twenty's. There's the offbeat, bizarre yet friendly living arrangement that must be traded in for an apartment shared with posers possessing their "MFA's from NYU." She nonchalantly earns money by scalping tickets to David Lettermen. She moves in with a an older married couple in Astoria who have so much love in their marriage that need to share it with others. (She really should have seen that one coming.) She works for a horrible boss in a Queen's supermarket. Back in Manhattan she moves into a tiny apartment where her only job is to free it up for lunchtime and afterwork assignations between businessmen and their pick-ups. And there is that murder.

When towards then end of the book, Michelle proves be an unreliable narrator, the revelation does not cast the preceding events in a more interesting light, they simply make her more irritating,

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Friday, September 23, 2011


The Drifting Classroom Vol. 7 (The Drifting Classroom)The Drifting Classroom Vol. 7 by Kazuo Umezu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So far these kids have endured the following: The transportation of their elementary school to some future wasteland. A maniacal cafeteria worker. Homicidal teachers. Mass suicide among first graders. A giant bug that laid eggs that created little bugs. Pre-adolescent power struggles -- and those can get nasty. Bubonic plague.

Did I leave anything out? I must have.

In this installment, the rain that allowed their garden to grow brought with it a proliferation of mushrooms. Are they edible? Those who eat them experience strange feelings of power followed by dementia. The kids decide they should pray for help, and in one of the most non-American moments so far, one child asks, "Who should we pray to?"  They settle on a bust our hero, Sho, made of his mother in art class. Meanwhile the mushroom eaters make a one-eyed idol of mud who proves to be the more receptive deity and manifests itself as a tentacled monster.

Umezu's drawings are the most storyboard-like of any of the manga artists I've read. His action sequences, consisting almost entirely of dark pages with kids grappling, shattering wood, raised weapons, and close-ups of kids shouting "aaaargh" and "gyaaah" are genuinely exciting in their own ridiculous way. When Yoshikawa, formerly one of the good kids, eats mushrooms and goes down on all fours to scurry out of the schoolyard to her new god, it is genuinely creepy. Takamatsu, the cafeteria man, who has gone from a threat to a retarded man child, and now back to an incredible danger, looks like a deranged, overweight Desi Arnaz -- the very essence of horror.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: RED LIGHTS by Georges Simenon

Red Lights (New York Review Books Classics)Red Lights by Georges Simenon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third of Simenon's roman durs that I have read, and even though it is my least favorite so far I admire the lean prose and psychological complexity. But at times the story read like an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Steve and Nancy Hogan, Long Islanders who work in Manhattan, head out on Labor Day Weekend to pick up their kids at Camp Walla Walla in Maine. Even by the lax standards of the 1950's, when the novel takes place, Steve has a "drinking problem."  He sneaks extra drinks when his wife isn't looking, though she is hardly unaware of his habits, and once on the road he stops for quick shots at roadhouses along the way. He insists he drives better when he has had a few. At his first stop, he finds that Nancy has not waited for him in the car. She has left behind a note that she is taking the bus the rest of the way. Steve's drunkeness sidetracks his attempt to catch up with the bus. He stops at another bar to further "clear his head." He is drunkenly voluble with a silent man seated next to him at the bar. Although it stretches credulity is comes as no surprise that this man, whom Steve finds waiting in his car, is the armed-and-dangerous escapee from Sing Sing discussed on the televisions in the bar. Steve gives him a ride, blathering all the time about true manhood and the qualities he imagines he shares with the criminal.

The novel has attitudes towards alcoholism and sexual assault that will not sit well with contemporary readers, which is perhaps why the ambiguities at the end of the novel seem more unsatisfying that intriguing. But Simenon's style remains impeccable, and Steve's delusional drunken consciousness is presented in excruciating detail.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Parasyte, Volume 3Parasyte, Volume 3 by Hitoshi Iwaaki
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The presence of flesh eating parasites inhabiting a certain proportion of the population is becoming more difficult for the authorities to cover up. Shin is fortunate that Migi, the parasite possessing his right hand, is an easy-going sort. The others, like the one that ate Shin's mother or the one posing as a new kid at school, are a different matter entirely,

In Volume 3 of Iwaaki's manga, secrecy begins to break down. Shin discovers the mild superpowers he is developing with Migi's presence in his body. Shimada, the new parasite student, goes on a killing spree at the school. And Shin continues to have girlfriend trouble.

Iwaaki's visual style comes to life only when he depicts the aliens' fantastic transformations. His human characters tend to open their mouths into enormous gashes when screaming, which they do a lot, and the least to the most extreme situations make them break out in globules of sweat.

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Sunday, September 18, 2011


The Girls of Slender MeansThe Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first Muriel Spark novel I have read, and I have always had the notion that she was an author one read entirely, not just a random novel here and there. But The Girls of Slender Means is a completely satisfying three hours' read. Spark had me from the first paragraph, and when the novel was over, the incidents of death, murder, and insanity seemed all of a piece with the sort of girls' boarding house comedy I associate with something along the lines of Stage Door.

The setting is London, 1945, after the war in Europe but with VJ day still in the future. Ration cards for everything from powdered milk to clothing are tradable commodities, and bombed-out ruins litter the urban landscape. It was a time, Spark says, when "all the nice people of England were poor, allowing for exceptions." The May of Teck Club stands opposite Kensington Gardens and provides a home for the daughter of country clerics and other respectable middle-class families who must find work after the war. Exactly what many of the young women do remains vague, but they date a great deal, the youngest settling for RAF pilots and the more mature girls setting their eyes on American officers.

Spark's voice provides insights and asides that are remorseless rather than cruel. The action, such as it is, builds towards the kind of flamboyant set piece Alfred Hitchcock favored in his films of the 1940's. The denouement, which Spark intersperses throughout the book starting on about page three, takes the reader out of the closed-in world of the May of Teck Club and into the 1960's.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011


Needle (Needle, #1)Needle by Hal Clement

Hal Clement had a fifty year career in sf and was made a Science Fiction Writer of America Grand Master in 1999.

Needle (1950) was his first published novel and it suffers the dubious fate of containing so many new sf elements that they have become standards of the medium over time. Two aliens, one good, one bad, crash onto Earth, The good alien, Hunter, is after the criminal alien and yes this is roughly the plot of Critters along with many lesser sf movies and books. Just the other night I decided not to watch something called Alien Hunter which I suspect had a similar plot.

These aliens are gelatinous beings that must find a host organism for survival. They exist cooperatively with their host, doing generally good things for its immune system and such, although they are also capable of killing it in a variety of ways. The good alien, Hunter, enters the body of a fifteen-year-old boy and is ready to track down his prey, but finds himself transported from the research island in the South Pacific where he landed to a boys boarding school in Massachusetts. Bob, the alien's host, gets on well with his new bodily resident and manages to leave school and return to the South Pacific so the hunt can proceed.

If published today, Needle would be YA fiction. It's dated. The world of Booth Tarkington is in its past, but the spirit of the Hardy Boys makes itself felt. Everyone rides bicycles, wears swimming outfits, and they organize their days around returning home in time for dinner. Various of Bob's friends are suspects, and clearing them of potential possession drags on for the middle third of the book. This gets a little boring. Also, I am not particularly good at this sort of thing, but I guessed where the bad alien was hiding out just by deciding which character would offer the biggest payoff for a finale.

Clement's strengths, as in Mission of Gravity, his only other novel I have read, is working with alien psychology, alien/human interaction, and those scenes where the alien acts like an alien. Clement returned to these characters almost thirty years later, and even as unengaging as I found much of this novel, I am curious to see what he does with them a second time around.

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Monday, September 12, 2011


The Drifting Classroom Vol. 6 (The Drifting Classroom)The Drifting Classroom Vol. 6 by Kazuo Umezu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Several volumes back in this series I was bothered that the elementary school students stranded in the future, their school building surrounded by a desert wasteland, were delighted to find they had a swimming pool full of water for their survival. What about chlorine? I wondered. How can Umezu ignore the chlorine issue.

Such concerns now strike me as petty. In this current installment, our hero Sho re-establishes the psychic link with his mother so that she can embed inside the corpse of a soon-to-be mummified baseball star the medicine the students need to combat the bubonic plague that threatens their existence. The mummy they happen to have found somewhere nearby in their future world.

So the whole chlorine thing no longer seems like such a big deal. I am curious still about certain behavioral traits of Sho's mom. During her single-minded pursuit to save her son, she gets punched several times in the face, although she is capable of giving as good as she gets. But are Japanese men and women so quick to slug one another? To get into the same hospital as the ailing baseball star she gashes her arm with a carving knife.

Meanwhile, the students who claim not to be suffering from Bubonic plague decide to burn down the building containing the stricken schoolmates. But the infection has spread everywhere and it is only the packet of medicine retrieved from the mummy's gut that saves the remaining students.

But with four pages of the book remaining, you know there is plenty of time for something really bad to happen. It does. The smoke from the fire, entering the cloud heavy atmosphere, combines with the celebratory group singing of the survivors to produce an effective rain dance and some much needed rain. Volume 6 ends with flash flooding and quicksand. But at least there is no chlorine in the rainwater.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011


Mission of GravityMission of Gravity by Hal Clement
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The science in "hard science fiction" doesn't have to be all that hard to go over my head. If publishers and critical readers say an author has done his homework and knows what he's talking about, I find myself taking a lot of things on faith. On the other hand, I am just as happy reading Philip K. Dick who ignores the niceties of scientific plausibility and has a fully recovered earth with citizens zipping around in flying cars and planning to colonize the galaxy just a few years after an atomic war.

During a 50 year publishing career, Hal Clement established himself as a master of hard sf. He held degrees in astronomy and chemistry, was a WWII pilot, and taught science at Milton Academy. Mission of Gravity(1954) is generally considered to be Clement's best novel. It appears in the Jim Pringle list of 100 best Science Fiction novels, but the description there goes beyond damning with faint praise. Pringle writes, "Of course the psychology is minimal, the characters wooden, and the prose flat." I finally picked it up with low expectations. I was wrong.

The setting is the planet Mesklin, a dense, discus shaped planet that rotates so rapidly so close to its sun that its gravity ranges from about twice that of earth's when near the equatorial rim to 700 times earth's near the poles. Clement later rethought this, and reduced the maximum gravity to 250 times that of earth, but you get the idea. Mesklin is largely inaccessible to earthling space explorers, and  you would think to any form of life whatsoever. But earth has sent a probe to Mesklin which is stranded at the south pole. A research station orbits the planet, and our boots on the ground is a single astronaut names Charles Strickland. His craft must stay near the rim, but there he has found the planets intelligent life form. The Mesklinites are tough-shelled caterpillar like creatures, about fifteen inches long, built low to the ground, and highly intelligent. Barlennan, our Mesklinite hero, leads a group of ocean traders. He has befriended Strickland, who must spend most of his time in his surface craft, learned English, and agreed to undertake the dangerous trip to the pole to retrieve the recording devices off the space probe.

I don't know why Jim Pringle held so low an opinion of the psychology and characterizations of this book. Barlennan and his crew are true adveturers, clever problem solvers, and determined when trading to get the better end of the deal. Strickland and his scientist co-workers orbiting the planet come off as enthusiastic, brainy grad students. A nice period touch is their rush to their slide rules when they need to work out complicated mathematical formulas. (Do they even make slide rules anymore?)

The adventure on the ground involves storms, unfriendly natives, some peculiar beasts in the mid-gravity zones, and the Mesklinites determination to overcome their justifiable fear of heights in a world where a fall of less than a foot would be fatal, The mixture of science and adventure here is closer to the spirit of Jules Verne than any sf novel I have read. Twenty years later, Clement returned to the Mesklinites, transporting them a giant rock in the sky, again inaccessible to earthmen, in a novel called Starlight.

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Thursday, September 1, 2011


Parasyte, Volume 2Parasyte, Volume 2 by Hitoshi Iwaaki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Japanese really know how to set up primal situations for adolescent protagonists.

Sinichi and Migi, the alien parasite that inhabits his right hand, are getting along pretty well. But when Sinichi's parents leave for vacation, his mother has her head stolen by a parasite in need of a new one, and Sinichi is faced with the reality that he must kill his mother, or what used to be his mother, before she gets either himself or his father.

Along the way he meets up with a kinda pathetic possessed human, a loser contemplating suicide over his lost girlfriend about the time a parasite becomes lodged in his jaw. He also discovers that thanks to Migi's ability to subdivide himself, he is developing something close to superpowers. He quits taking shit and starts kicking ass.

Iwaaki's images in this second volume are more extravagant than the first. The transformation scenes and the scenes of two parasites swapping stories while their human hosts stand around with nothing to do have a loopy nuttiness about them that can make the parasites, whose only interest in self-preservation,  strangely appealing.

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