David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is about the Dutch in Nagasaki at the end of the 18th century. Jacob is a clerk who’s there to make his fortune so he can go back home to marry. Things don’t work out as he’d hoped and he has to become much better at politics than he was on arrival.
Mitchell splits up the narrative between a few different viewpoint characters in the book, which gives us not just the colonial perspective on what’s going on. The most troublesome part of the book for me was the nefarious practices going on in the mountain abbey. While the rest of the book felt like a more-restrained part of The Baroque Cycle, the abbey rumours were exceedingly pulpy and over the top. It made for a weird tone, since I wasn’t sure if the overly lurid doings were supposed to be taken seriously or if they were being overdone as a statement about exoticization/orientalism or if they were just weird.
I enjoy stories of Russia’s history, especially when they’re about the Russian soul, which always seems so different from mine. Petrograd, by Philip Gelatt and Tyler Crook, is about a British spy in Petrograd during the Great War (hence the interstitial name between St. Petersburg and Leningrad). The British want to make sure the Russians and Germans don’t come to a separate peace so they push their Petrograd office into making sure that doesn’t happen, by killing Rasputin.
Cleary is one of the spies. He’s in bed with revolutionaries, feeding information to his masters and the tsarist secret police, and hobnobs with princes (for more information). When Cleary is pushed into plotting assassination he’s clearly out of his depth and the book focuses on what kind of a man he is trying to be.
It’s a great book, done in a bigger hardcover than a lot of Oni Press’ stuff. The art is detailed and brushy (reminded this untutored eye of Craig Thompson’s work, but with more traditional page layouts) with faded orange washes throughout. It’s a great non-gamourous spy story with violence and repercussions and talk of “Russifying one’s soul.”
It makes perfect sense to read in the afterword of 10 Billion Days and 100 Billion Nights that one of the big influences on Ryu Mitsuse (the author) was Stanislaw Lem. The story is about Plato and Siddhartha and Jesus of Nazareth (one of the three is the villain) dealing with Titans and Orichalcum, the death of all humanity, colliding galaxies and the existence of entities beyond infinity. It is fucking marvellous.
At first I thought it would be more like The Years of Rice and Salt, but 10 Billion Days is not nearly so grounded in the life of people being reincarnated. It’s the kind of book that you can sort of float through because the plot isn’t grabby, but then you shake out of yourself and ask what happened and you realize you’re somewhere distant and cosmic. I don’t know how much of that distancing comes because this is a translation, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a book about cyborgs looking for god and I liked it a lot.
I remember when Harvey Pekar’s comic The Beats came out and it got profiled on BoingBoing and I feel like I’ve seen it everywhere since. I’ve read a bit of Kerouac Ginsberg and Burroughs in my day, so I was interested. Those big three are well represented in a non-hagiographic kind of way. What really made this book for me was the information about all the Beats I hadn’t heard of. There are comics in here about a bunch of people who were also at Ginsberg’s first City Lights reading of Howl, and they are very interesting.
For instance, I hadn’t ever really thought about how anti-woman the big-name beats were until seeing some of this stuff laid out on paper. Having stuff about the women who were also creative forces at the time was really good for provoking at least a Wikipedia-binge or two.
Boaz Yakin’s comic Marathon is a retelling of the story of the messenger who ran to Athens to warn the city of the Persians about to sack them. That’s just the third act though. There are plenty of scenes of running beforehand. Eucles wants to be fighting not running, but running becomes the way to victory.
I wasn’t a huge fan. The rough linework in the art and all the beards led to people all looking interchangeably similar. I don’t really give a shit about these kinds of military honour stories either so there wasn’t a lot for me here.
I haven’t read an Umberto Eco book in quite a while, and The Prague Cemetery is the first ebook of his I’ve partaken in. The lack of physicality made a weird mismatch in reading this tale of creating documents. I felt like I should be sifting through papers, not clicking through pages.
The main characters (hard to call them protagonists) are a priest and a forger who makes his living making documents to legitimize shady dealings both financial and political in Piedmont and then Paris.
There’s an interesting triple narration to the book. There’s a narrator plus those two characters who write diary entries to each other trying to determine which of them is Tyler Durden. There are murders and secret meetings and lots of European intrigue and the tracts that would eventually become the Protocols of Elders of Zion (the anti-Semitic tracts that found their way all over Europe influencing at least one failed painter in the twentieth century).
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is the story of a group of Japanese soldiers in World War 2 who are stationed on the South Pacific island of New Britain in 1943. There’s no one character that’s the hero, just a bunch of poor saps who have malaria, malnutrition and get eaten by alligators. It’s bleak as hell.
The characters are drawn in this cartoony style while the backgrounds and animals are very detailed, which is an interesting effect. I feel it put me in their shoes as the rookies got slapped for no reason, or as they decided they needed to eat their fill before going on their suicide mission. This kind of manga is a bit different from what the kids these days are all about, but this was a really good comic.
Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze isn’t the kind of YA book I normally read. It’s a story of a 13-year-old southern girl named Sophie in the 1960s who goes out to her grandmother’s manor for the summer. Her mom is all about Sophie behaving like a proper white lady. Then she travels back in time 100 years (through the intercession of a Creature in the maze) and is taken in as a slave on the sugar plantation. The plantation owners think she’s the misbegotten daughter of their dissolute New Orleans brother.
The story is about Sophie learning to be a slave. She starts off in the house but gets framed for stealing and has to do much crappier work. She makes friends and comes of age and doesn’t get to go home when what she thinks was a fine adventure is done.
It was a pretty good story, and it was easy to be mad at the characters you were supposed to dislike, including Sophie’s bitch of a mother. It didn’t feel preachy though. I was a little bored, but I’m not a huge slice of life historical fiction person in the first place. It felt well-researched, and I was very happy that Sophie’s physical changes from living six months in the span of twenty minutes weren’t taken back, Narnia-style.
On the cover of Chan Koonchung’s novel The Fat Years there’s a subtitle reading: “The novel no one in China dares publish.” Le sigh. The book’s publishing history in other places doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the book itself. It’s also funny that I’ve seen it billed as a dystopian science fiction novel, whereas for the most part to me it resembled actual China. There were exaggerations, yes, but this is not the stuff of 1984 (there is an element of Brave New World in it, since as far as I know [SPOILER ALERT] China doesn’t actually lace its water supply with trace amounts of Ecstasy). Mostly though, the book served as an interesting look at how modern China exists.
The first two thirds of the book follow a series of characters in Beijing, but mostly Lao Chen, a writer from Taiwan. An acquaintance of his meets him on the street asking about the missing month they’ve experienced as China experienced its ascendancy. The rest of the world’s economy collapsed, you see, but China managed to get through and everyone is so happy and self satisfied. The book is mostly about trying to figure out why and what happened.
The last third of the book is more like an essay from the mouth of a government official explaining what happened and why and how. If you don’t care about Chinese politics and media and such, this part will likely be terribly dull, but if you do care, it’s fascinating. I liked it a lot, despite its hyperbolic claims of how no one in China dare reads it.
I wanted to like 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente. It’s a comic about baseball after all. But I couldn’t really get into it. There were some good bits. I liked how the English dialogue had yellow-orange coloured speech balloons to differentiate it from what would have been Spanish. I liked the dynamic art for the baseball sequences. I just found the story muddy and not as engaging as it could have been.