Friday, 20 March 2015

Lauren R. Weinstein's Girl Stories (Henry Holt, 2006) and Lynda Barry's One Hundred Demons (Sasquatch Books, 2002)

NB: linked in this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.

Over the past few months I've been unearthing graphic novels – more accurately unboxing, I suppose; for the most part they've been sitting in cardboard boxes in the loft – that I've owned for years but for whatever reason haven't got round to reading until now(ish). I have a vague plan, hatched in this post last month on three graphic novels from 2014 and destined, no doubt, like other vague plans before it, to be abandoned before it amounts to much of anything, to group some of them together in configurations which strike me as likely to prompt a few thoughts, arbitrary and asinine though those configurations – and thoughts – may be. This configuration being a case in point:

Girl Stories by Lauren R. Weinstein, published in paperback by Henry Holt in 2006, and One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry, published in hardback by Sasquatch Books in 2002. Aha! I hear you cry. He's grouped these two graphic novels together because they're both by women. Oho! I rejoin. That is only part of the reason. In fact my major rationale for grouping the two books together is even more prosaic than that: when I retrieved them from the loft it struck me that they're both in a landscape format, and almost exactly the same TPS – about 150mm by 240mm.

Slightly more interestingly, both books are episodically autobiographical in nature and deal with similarly formative periods in their authors' lives, so despite my facile comparisons they do share more in common than just gender and size.

Of the two, I liked Girl Stories the best. Why it took me nearly ten years to finally read the damn thing I've no idea; I've long loved Weinstein's idiosyncratic, unpredictable Inside Vineyland (Alternative Comics, 2003), and though Girl Stories isn't quite as demented as that debut, it has the same zip and energy, just directed to keenly felt, scratchily rendered vignettes of school life and suburban home life (instead of stories about lovelorn robots and depressed dogs), with meditations on the perils of social climbing, the trouble with boyfriends and the problem of body fascism.

It's taken me even longer to get round to One Hundred Demons – over a dozen years, which is ridiculous really. I mean, what's the point in even owning a book if it's just going sit there unread for a dozen years? He types, looking round guiltily at the hundreds of books sitting on his shelves unread for half a dozen years. But anyway: Barry's comics are as honest and raw as Weinstein's – rawer even: there are allusions in One Hundred Demons to a very dark and painful episode in Barry's childhood. As a cartoonist, though, Barry prefers to tell rather than show, to the extent that the words in her panels frequently overwhelm and crowd out the pictures. That said, she may lack Weinstein's light touch, but there's a reflective strength, and consequently an affecting depth, to a story like "Cicadas".

Friday, 13 March 2015

War Game by Anthony Price (Gollancz, 1976; David Audley Series #7): Book Review

NB: One of this Friday's Forgotten Books.

'Formulaic' is a word oft applied to genre fiction, and in many cases rightly so: think of contemporary crime fiction, with its interminable parade of interchangeable detective-inspectors and mutilated female corpses. But though formulaic may be a derogatory term, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with developing or adhering to a formula. Some of the best and most influential crime and spy series ever published – Richard Stark's Parker novels and Ian Fleming's Bond ones spring to (my) mind – were written to formulas, and yet individual books within those series still stand as distinctive works of fiction in their own right. The key is to mix things up a bit – to, as Mike Love of the Beach Boys memorably put it, "fuck with the formula" (Love was actually advising Brian Wilson against doing that, but Wilson ignored him, with spectacular results) – and this is what Anthony Price does with his David Audley series of spy novels.

Since I first encountered the series in 2011 I've read seven of Price's nineteen Audley thrillers – most recently War Game, published by Victor Gollancz in 1976 – and though the elements – the formula – that comprise the novels have become familiar – a preoccupation with the past and, often, archaeology, one which feeds into a (then) present day mystery concerning state security; a reliance on dialogue rather than description as a means of unravelling that mystery – Price always finds a way to fuck with that formula.

His chief method of doing so is by changing the principal viewpoint character, beginning with the clever and prickly Audley himself in The Labyrinth Makers (1970), then moving through a variety of other operatives of the Research and Development Section of British Intelligence – plus the odd stray Italian and American – as the novels progress, and arriving, Magic Faraway Tree-style, back at Audley as of War Game. This is an older and more seasoned Audley, however – in Price's stories time marches on at roughly the same pace as the books were originally published, so a good six or seven years have elapsed since the events of The Labyrinth Makers – one who gazes upon subordinates Paul Mitchell and Frances Fitzgibbon and, despite being respectively irritated and beguiled by them, sees a pair of stars destined to rise further in the Intelligence firmament than he ever has or will.

But it's still Audley who for the most part makes the intellectual running here, doing his damndest to work out how leftie firebrand Charlie Ratcliffe has managed to unearth £2 million in 17th century gold – with which he intends to fund his radical workers' newspaper – and have his brother bumped off during a Civil War reenactment into the bargain, thus securing the fortune for himself. As before in the series, there's more – or perhaps less – going on than meets the eye, and so even though Price's own politics show through on occasion – the moral matter of whether a government minister should really be turning an apparatus of state to the undoing of a left-wing irritant is never fully addressed – there is a genuine threat to national security at play, one which must be countered. The identity of that threat may not come as a huge surprise, but the rug-pulling reveal of its method demonstrates there's plenty of fun to be had with Price's formula yet.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Patricia Highsmith's The Man Who Wrote Books in His Head: Signed Inscribed Edition (Eurographica, 1986)

NB: Included in Friday's Forgotten Books, 6/3/15.

Much as I love a beautiful dust jacket (especially a British one dating from, say, the 1950s or the 1960s), sometimes the most extraordinary of books come in the plainest of wrappers. Like this one:

The Man Who Wrote Books in His Head and Other Stories by Patricia Highsmith, published by Eurographica of Helsinki, Finland (or Helsinki, Sweden, as newsreader Harvey Johnson has it in Die Hard), in 1986 as part of their Mystery and Spy Authors in Signed Limited Editions series (number four in that series, to be precise). Printed, as noted in the back of the book, "by Tipografia Nobili, established in Pesaro in 1823, on special Michelangelo paper made at the Magnani Paper Mills in Pescia, Italy" – and suitably and pleasingly thick and rough and deckled that paper is too – it was limited to 350 numbered copies signed by Highsmith, with "20 additional copies printed for the personal use of the author". This is one of those 20 additional copies:

Which Highsmith inscribed to a Catherine Schelbert – who may well be the translator Catherine Schelbert – in March 1990. A handful of copies of the signed and numbered run of The Man Who Wrote Books in His Head can be found on AbeBooks (for upwards of £100) – as can a similar number of Where the Action Is and Other Stories, a second limited edition of Highsmith tales published by Eurographica in 1989 – but I can't see any other copies of the "personal use" run, so this one is quite a rare item, and as such nice addition to my steadily growing collection of signed and inscribed Highsmith books (see here, here, here and here).

The four stories in The Man Who Wrote Books in His Head are taken from the 1979 collection Slowly, Slowly in the Wind, although three, "Something You Have to Live With", "Slowly, Slowly in the Wind" itself and "A Curious Suicide", were first published earlier than that, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine ("A Curious Suicide" as "Who Lives, Who Dies?"). The best by far is the title story, in which Highsmith drily demonstrates, using the case of one E. Taylor Cheever, that one needn't go to the bother of actually writing any novels in order to become a celebrated novelist – a finding which, for myself, having attempted on more than one occasion to write a novel only to discover that my talents – if indeed any exist – almost certainly lie elsewhere, is music to the ears.

The other three stories are all very good too, though – the macabre and mildly gruesome "Slowly, Slowly in the Wind", with its wonderfully original method of disposing of a body, in an obvious sort of way, "Something You Have to Live With" and "A Curious Suicide" working a more subtle magic, both dealing with the lingering aftereffects of killing; "A Curious Suicide" in particular comes off like a condensed Highsmith novel, complete with a murderer who gets away with it almost in spite of himself. All of which leads me to suspect that the rest of Slowly, Slowly in the Wind will be well worth reading too – so it's a good job I have a first edition of that collection, which I'll doubtless be blogging about down the line, and adding to the Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery, where I've deposited The Man Who Wrote Books in His Head (under "Patriciaphernalia"). And I'll be blogging about another signed and inscribed Highsmith book before too long as well – a very special association copy of a Tom Ripley novel, no less.