I read Tamas Dobozy’s collection of short stories entitled Siege 13 on the recommendation of one of our library members. Dobozy writes about Hungarian immigrants to Canada and their communities, sort of. I didn’t know much about 20th century Hungarian history before reading this book, but the WW2 occupation by the Nazis and then the Communists led to a lot of traumatic life-shattering events, even for those who managed to emigrate to the west, so that forms the backdrop to most of these stories.
They were well-written enough, but I was lured in by a promise of beguiling weirdness, which there definitely wasn’t enough of for my taste. They were stories of informers, and of relationships between people who hid themselves away and who tried to falsify histories. They weren’t bad, and Dobozy is very skilled but they just weren’t my kind of thing.
John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a strange little book. It’s about Bruno, a very naive 9-year-old boy from Berlin whose father is a Nazi commandant transferred to Auschwitz.
Bruno, being nine, thinks life on the other side of the fence from his house must be gobs of fun, what with the pajamas they get to wear. He meets a boy on the other side of the fence and they strike up a friendship, in which Bruno displays his ignorance and privilege. It’s not a terribly realistic story and belongs in the zone of fairy tale, but set in our own monstrous history. Nothing really sounded very German, but did sound very much the way a British person would portray a naive little German boy. It’s like Bruno was Pooh, stuck very far from the Hundred-Acre Wood. I liked it, but if you want a more in-depth German kids in WW2 story read The Book Thief.
Blacksad is a collection of three noir comics in a world of anthropomorphic animals. John Blacksad is a private investigator who is also a black cat. He does the standard noir detective shtick of solving crimes, working with people he doesn’t like and never coming out ahead.
The world has characters who fit into their animal roles, it’s not like there’s a bear society and a cat society; everything is a lot more individual than that. In the second story in the book there’s a Nazi in all but name group of white supremacists with polar bears, arctic foxes, snowy owls and weasels all dressed up in uniform with red armbands with a snowflake.
The art is very painterly with lots of detail and a colour scheme that makes me think calling this noir might be off. It isn’t filled with shadows at all, just muted colours. The edition I was reading was really big so you had a lot of room to really look at the art.
Very well executed detective stories which I liked a lot. They’d work even with lesser art, but with the great art it makes the book something special.
Ax is an anthology of alternative manga stories. I don’t really read enough manga, so I figure anthologies are a good way to help me find new things. There were a bunch of stories I didn’t like, because they were too crudely drawn or too much florid art/language (which might have been better in Japanese). But there were a few I did like.
Love’s Bride by Yoshihiro Tatsumi: A guy gets possessive about a girl he knows so she tells him to fuck off and he goes to the zoo and falls in love with an ape who truly understands him. I’ve read a bunch of Yoshihiro Tatsumi books before so maybe it’s just familiarity with his straightforward style, but the story was well-done.
Conch of the Sky by Imiri Sakabashira: This one was way more metaphorical and weird, with squids crawling into the sick guy’s futon and then going off on a chase through the dark. The narration and the sinuous but not overdone art really sold it for me. It felt like a fever dream. In a good way.
A Broken Soul by Nishioka Brosis: The art in this story was what I really liked. It felt kind of cubist as the main character discovered his soul was broken.
Enrique Kobayahsi’s Eldorado by Toranusuke Shimada: This is the story of an Eldorado motorcycle found in an uncle’s garage. Toranusuke Shimada draws in a style reminiscent of Joe Sacco and tells the history of these Brazilian motorcycle manufacturers who turned out to have gotten their skills from Nazis. This one probably felt the least like what I think of as manga of the book.
Dennis Detwiller’s Denied to the Enemy is a Cthulhu mythos novel set in World War 2 and early operations with the organization that came to be known as Delta Green (in a fictional universe – DG isn’t real).
This book takes place in 1942-43 and jumps between a lot of viewpoint characters. These are mostly the heroes but a few interludes in the heads of members of the alien Great Race who’re travelling through time, trying to manipulate the forces of human history for their own benefit.
The book starts with a sympathetic Nazi officer who gets pulled into one of his compatriot’s occult schemes. His partner is sacrificing jews and communists to creatures from under the sea to try and negotiate some sort of alliance to destroy Allied shipping. This isn’t such a bad thing but the creatures are very clear they need females to mate with, which would betray their racial purity ideals quite severely. The Nazi gets information about another Nazi project called Thule to the Americans who come in and blow the whole human sacrifice camp up good. The Nazi dies.
Then we’re mostly with an American who’s trying to figure out this Thule mystery. There are other agents involved and they go to Miskatonic University. There are also scenes in Burma, Australia and the Belgian Congo. A lot of people die.
It’s a good story (I think it’s much better than Detwiller’s Through a Glass, Darkly, but I’m not entirely sure why). The jumping around from person to person makes it a story that feels bigger than one person, or even a handful of people. It’s in the middle of a glabal conflict that the aliens see as insignificant except when it interferes with their plans. It’s all very Lovecraftian (a bit more pulpy than he would have written, I grant) and though the universe doesn’t give a shit about anyone involved, you’ve also got to keep an eye on the people.
This is probably my best recommendation for someone looking for Mythos fiction written without all the racism that makes HPL so problematic.
Stephen Baxter’s Last and First Contacts is a collection of short stories that to me, have the common theme of scale. There are stories about dark matter ripping the universe apart, and about alien consciousness that is propagated by gravity waves, and story after story of life continuing without people, or with radically changed people. It was a collection of big stories and I liked that.
Strangely, the first story in the book, and the only new story, is the smallest scale, about an amateur German astronomer working on Von Braun’s rockets. I also really liked the pulpy alternate history exploration story about a world where the Pacific was uncrossable, not because of storms, but distance-wise. On a Nazi air-city they fly the distance from the Earth to the Moon over the ocean but never get to the Americas because of a fold in space that hides remnants of the past, mammoths and Neanderthals and dinosaurs. It was very neat.
Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality is a metatextual comic by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, about superhero universe retcons and the lives that get snuffed out when they happen. All of the main characters in the story are long-forgotten 8th-string DC characters fighting The Architects, who are comics creators. There are lots of puns and things that must have been awesomely fun to draw because they’re pretty excellent to look at (in the same way Dr. McNinja does this kind of madness). By the end the Nazi Gorilla Vampire is saying “I guess I’m an anti-hero” and the fourth wall is smashed quite nicely. But there’s also a good little meditation on how the past is all the universe there really is.
I was actually surprised this was done back in 2007. It felt very much like a pre-New 52 kind of story, but I guess that just shows how regurgitative the business of superhero comics really is.
Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief might now be my favourite book about World War 2. Yes that means it beats Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch 22 and Gravity’s Rainbow (though really, Gravity’s Rainbow was never really a favourite). This story is just as disjointed in time as those, but it feels more connected to the characters.
The story is about Liesel, a German girl who is living with a foster family outside of Munich. The mother is rude and terrifying, always yelling about everything, and the father is a house painter who can’t really find much work in their town. They also hide a Jew in their basement.
The thing that makes this book amazing is how it’s put together. You see, Death narrates the story, and does the narration with this detached wit that’s also surprisingly empathetic. Death keeps on spoiling the story for you, but it doesn’t matter because it’s told so beautifully. The main text gets interrupted by these bold, centred pronouncements and lists about characters or events, but the story circles back and back and around.
Liesel has a friend who painted himself black to be like Jesse Owens. She steals books and learns to read and rereads the only books they have because they’re poor and the book is about the hope that comes from story even if you know how it’s all going to turn out.
It’s an amazing piece of work and one of those things that gets marked as children’s literature just because the protagonist is young. Which is fine, I want young people to read this, but I also want adults to read it.
Jonathan Hickman’s The Nightly News is a comic about journalism, but unlike DMZ or Transmetropolitan this book’s journalists aren’t the (tarnished) heroes: they’re the enemy. The Nightly News is about revenge-killing journalists for their crimes of fucking with people. It’s also about cults and American politics being owned by media companies, and there’s a lot of Chomsky. It’s pretty awesome.
“Well, pardon me for being frank, but Chomsky’s a fucking retard.”
- Senator M. Jay Rector
One of the awesome things about it is how the pages are designed. There aren’t really many panels, but overlapping images in black white and monocolours/pages (oranges & browns for the present timeline, blues for the various other times). Infographics are interwoven through the pages, too. It doesn’t look like a regular comic book.
It gets a little over-the-top at times (the running joke with the media conglomerates/senators using quotes from famous Nazis that get mistaken for McLuhan and Chomsky is great, though). The characters we’re following are kind of terrible people. I appreciated the references at the end of the book, where Hickman explains some of the references being made and how it all got put together. The subtitle for the book is A Lie Told in Six Parts, but he still has to explicitly state “I am not the Voice in this book. This is a story, not a sermon.” (It reminds me of Warren Ellis having to state every once in a while that he and Spider Jerusalem aren’t actually one and the same being.)
I got this book from the library but I think I’m going to want a copy when I return to the Northern Hemisphere.
The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million is about Daniel Mendelsohn and his quest to find out about his great uncle’s family who were killed by the Nazis. In the course of the book he talks about talking to old Jewish people in New York and Florida and Australia and Bolekhov and Israel and Sweden. It’s a story that was about putting a human face on these people who died and on the people who didn’t.
I have to say I didn’t really love the book. My friend who gave it to me did love it. She’s a historian though, and this digging into all of these mundane bits of memory is the kind of thing she likes. I could completely see why she liked the book and its searching and its circular storytellingness, but I couldn’t get into it. I think the main thing that put me off was the tone through the whole thing that only people who really really care about history are good people. And while I think history is interesting and you can’t forget about it, I’d rather not spend my days wallowing in it. Here’s a quote:
When I was growing up, I would look at my father’s father, and then look at my mother’s father, and the contrast between them was responsible for forming, in my childish mind, a kind of list. In one column there was this: Jaegers, Jewishness, Europe, languages, stories. In the other there was this: Mendelsohns, atheists, America, English, silence. I would compare and contrast these columns, when I was much younger, and even then I would wonder what kind of present you could possibly have without knowing the stories of your past.
Maybe it’s just me being defensive, but I’m so much more on the silent English atheists side of that dichotomy (in terms of my Mennonite heritage) and his condescension towards us just grated. And it grated through the whole book. Plus the writing was so melodramatic it all just turned me off.