Week 10, rollicking

Evening Snow

Evening Snow, Utagawa Hiroshige, 1797–1861

Flying from Denver to Kansas City, I looked down at a snow-quilted landscape marked with… wait, what the heck ARE these lines?

Snowy squiggles

I watched these squiggles for miles and miles. They look to me like land art. Terraced fields? Can anyone out there speak with authority regarding the disposition of these mystery lines?

On the flight, I started Ann Leckie’s new book The Raven Tower. Just before bed, I’d finished it. I’m still not sure exactly how long it is, in pages; one of the detriments of reading on the Kindle. The story flew by.

The Raven Tower

Wow is there anything bleaker than a picture of a Kindle book in a hotel room

The book is written in the second person, you you you, and it has a reason for that, but honestly, the first few pages almost threw me. The opening chapters are jarring; very much “I see what you’re trying to do here.” But quickly—happily—the dream of the story asserts itself. For a Leckie, there is do, or do not. There is no try.

The Raven Tower, you realize midway through, is basically a locked-room mystery. And it’s that dose of Agatha Christie, injected alongside the scheming gods and castle intrigue, that twisted the book, for me, into a strange and welcome dimension.

Ann is one of the very best writers about gender I’ve ever read. Her far-future sci-fi series that begins with Ancillary Justice (so, sooo good) delivered a perfectly-calibrated brain-bomb of a gender twist; The Raven Tower is a little less tricky about it, but/and maybe more powerful for that reason. I’m being elliptical here because it’s fun to encounter these things on your own. Suffice it to say, Ann is making steady, important contributions to the consideration of gender in fiction that are, compared to the other stories on the shelf—mine included—both more imaginative AND truer to people’s real experience. Even though she’s writing about uh galactic empires and talking stones. It’s impressive and inspiring.

About two-thirds of the way through The Raven Tower, my overwhelming thought was: ah, to have a mind like Ann Leckie’s in our world, thinking through things… how lucky are we?

If you give this book a try, don’t get thrown by the you you you. Give it a chapter. The dream will come.

This year’s edition of Best American Comics is edited by Jillian Tamaki, who is the best illustrator working today. (I have been licensed by the International Office of Extreme Claims to render such judgments.) Even better, the cover is by the comics writer and artist Sophia Foster-Dimino:

Best American Comics

(Give it a second. Really look.)

When I saw this news, I happened to be carrying around a zine-y little comic of Sophia’s:

Structures 1

It’s the chronicle of a class’s visit to an ancient city, sometime very very far in the future. It’s wonderful; weird and playful and brain-bending.

Structures 1

If Borges drew comics, they might have looked something like this.

Structures 1

Sophia is a literal genius. If I had to a bet money on who is definitely going to win a MacArthur grant sometime in the future, I would bet it on her. An astonishing mind, an inimitable line.

Grenville Kreiser’s Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases is not, in fact, useful. It is, however, amazing.

(Scroll down.)

I do love the Stoic Electronics channel.

A stoic server

For your reference, the ultimate icon of the stoic electronic aesthetic is the early 1980s Grid laptop:

A stoic laptop

I finished Crashed, Adam Tooze’s comprehensive history of the 2008 financial crisis that I mentioned in an earlier dispatch. It was slow going, but very worthwhile; revelatory and infuriating.

I noted this line and have continued to think about it. Tooze is recapping the revolts in Europe against austerity; the grown-ups in the room are scolding these citizens for their fecklessness. But,

If markets were entitled to panic, why should citizens be expected to preserve a proper demeanor? Why was it only the “confidence” of investors that mattered?

Tenmangū Shrine at Kameido in Snow

Tenmangū Shrine at Kameido in Snow, Utagawa Hiroshige, 1833–43

From time to time, I am asked for blurbs, and I take the requests very seriously. Sometimes, if my reading backlog is already too deep, I give my regrets, but more often, I’m eager to get an early peek at books. Sometimes, after reading, I decline to lend words of support—there was one book that I found quietly vile in its assumptions about life—but again, more often, the person making the request has sought me out for a reason, and there’s something in the book I love, and something helpful I can say about it.

Here are two recent blurbs, both for excellent books.

I believe I’m now on a list somewhere of Authors Who Appreciate Japanese Literature in Translation—this is EXCELLENT news—and so I received a copy of If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura, translated by Eric Selland. The cover of the U.S. edition is the work of Henry Sene Yee, who also designed Sourdough’s paperback cover:

If Cats Disappeared etc.

Here’s how I decided to talk about it:

At first, If Cats Disappeared from the World feels as light and puzzling as a fairy tale, but then, steadily, chapter by chapter—using nothing more than conversation, memory, and a winning narrator’s searching, sensitive thought experiments—it raises its cosmic stakes higher than any thriller. Like a padding cat or the shadow of death, Genki Kawamura’s book snuck up on me; the next thing I knew, I was crying.

I like that blurb a lot, but it is perhaps a bit… blurb-y. Like, you can really feel me trying to PACK IT IN, and say a lot of things at once.

G. Willow Wilson’s novel The Bird King is just out…

The Bird King

Not pictured, just off-camera: hotel French toast

…and I have a blurb on its back cover. (How much of an honor is this whole deal, by the way? Here’s this amazing object, product of years of craft and care, launched into the world—the cover is gorgeous, it’s all just magical—and you, the blurb-writer, get to ride along like a barnacle.)

This blurb felt a little weird as I was writing it—it was palpably looser, a little wild-eyed almost—but/and I decided I really liked the way it felt.

The Bird King

I do recognize my overuse of the word “rollicking.” I am, however, unrepentant.

Somehow, even after all this time, after all this documentation of artists and their work, I think people (a sweeping category in which I am included) systematically underappreciate the technical ingenuity and, really, weirdness that accompanies art at the highest level. The ways in which artists are so often making, along with everything else, their own tools.

An old LCD Soundsystem disc has been playing in my car lately, and on a whim last week I went looking for some articles about the music. Back in 2007, in a dorky interview with Electronic Musician, James Murphy talked about an odd technique:

On the previous LCD Soundsystem album, Murphy created [two tracks] by himself and was disappointed that they didn’t have the natural lift that’s achieved when several musicians play together. For Sound of Silver, he wanted to record a song by himself that sounded like a band and had that natural lift. For the track “All My Friends,” Murphy developed a technique whereby he first recorded scratch drums and then went back and played bass over the top of the drum track. Then he went back again and replayed the drums listening only to the recorded bass, and then he again played the bass listening only to the recorded drums. He went back and forth with this pattern about five or six times, and together, they sounded like a band because each take responded to the next.

That’s totally a flip-flop, by the way!

The Gion Shrine in Snow,

The Gion Shrine in Snow, Utagawa Hiroshige, ca. 1832


March 2019, Lawrence

This website uses the typeface Albertus Nova, an update by Toshi Omagari of Berthold Wolpe’s classic, and GT America, designed by Noël Leu with Seb McLauchlan.

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