Sunday, February 4, 2018

All the Books I read in January and a little bit of February

I am five weeks, and six books, into the new year. I was going to only talk about the books I read in January, but I was so close to finishing the book I started at the end of the month and I was kind of busy at the end of the week, so a little bit of February reading is squeaking in.

First, I read Noah Cicero's Go To Work and Do Your Job. Care for Your Children. Pay Your Bills. Obey the Law. Buy Products., which was recommended by my friend Todd, and which led to a kind of hilarious recommendation from Amazon in my inbox:

Amazon

The title of the book is the same as the five guiding principles at NEOTAP, the government run prison where Mike gets a job. Mike doesn't really want to work at NEOTAP, but he needs a job and health insurance, and he has to pay his student loans, so he tries not to notice how weird it is to work there. You're not allowed to ask any questions, but no one will tell you the rules. The prisoners and the staff are watched by a surveillance system at all times, and are constantly called in to discuss their numerous infractions of the rules that no one is allowed to ask about. Mike eventually befriends and starts dating Monica, another NEOTAP employee, but then Mike disappears. To find him, Monica will have to find out the truth about NEOTAP and the vast conspiracy behind it. She'll also have to learn how to shoot a gun.

I gave this three out of five stars. It was sort of interesting, but also moved very quickly, and didn't quite hang together at the end.

After that I breezed through Kevin Kwan's China Rich Girlfriend, the sequel to "Crazy Rich Asians". It was entertaining, just like the first book, and I gave it four out of five stars just because it held my interest, had some educational footnotes, and kept me occupied until my next book arrived in the mail.

The next book was Fire and Fury, which I've already talked about. I gave it three out of five stars, and I think it's interesting how the controversy has already died off. It's been a month, and nobody is talking about this book anymore. It'll be interesting to see how the paperback sales go, since probably everyone who wants to read this already has.

After I finished that, it turned out that "Crazy Rich Asians" had a third sequel, Rich People Problems, which concludes the "Crazy Rich Asians" trilogy. It was also entertaining, but I didn't think it was as good as the first two, and only gave it three out of five stars. Basically, if you want to read "Dynasty" or "Dallas", but starring Asians in Singapore, then these are the books for you.

I switched from novels to short stories for the next book, Gilbert Allen's The Final Days of Great American Shopping. This set of interlocking short stories documents the shopping lives, past, present, and near future, of the residents of Belladonna, a gated community in South Carolina. They buy storm windows that destroy their lawns, houses with helicopters hidden in the garage, shoes that change their lives, and cars that become their coffins. I gave it three out of five stars, but now that I'm thinking about it later I'm wondering if it maybe needed four.

I definitely gave four stars to the last book of the month, Daniel O'Brien's How To Fight Presidents. This hilarious guide (I laughed out loud for real a couple of times) goes from president to president, chapter by chapter, giving a brief biography and then explaining what you'd have to do to beat them in a fight. It doesn't include any presidents who were alive at the time of publication, presumably to avoid inciting violence against a current or former president, but it was really funny.

And it includes a bonus chapter on Zombie Teddy Roosevelt to make up for the absences.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Fire and Fury

Like a lot of America (according to the most recent sales figures I could find online, over a million hardcover readers, 250,000 e-readers, and 100,000 audiobook listeners), I spent some time at the beginning of the month reading Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury.

Fire and Fury

I was one of the people fortunate enough to order my Amazon copy before it went on backorder, so I got mine at the original release date and then spent a week reading it. Now that I've finished it, there's very little I can tell you about it that you haven't already heard. Most of my friends asked me to please share the good parts, but if you watched the news the week it came out, or read an article about the book, then you've heard all of the good parts. Everyone picked the same twenty or so excerpts and stories, because they really are the twenty or so best excerpts and stories, and almost all of them come from the first 100 pages.

With that in mind, here are my thoughts on the very first book that my mom and I have ever bought and been reading at the exact same time.

1) It needed a better copy editor. Parts of this feel rushed, and in the hardcover (the version I read) there are typos, accidental homophone switches, and I'm pretty sure I read at least once sentence that didn't have a verb. (I wish I'd marked the page.) The writing itself could also be better. One of my friends gushed, "It's like All the President's Men, but written by Regina George!"

As a person who has read "All the President's Men" and who is very familiar with the works of Regina George, I just have to say no.

This comparison is not appropriate.

Regina George was gossipy, vicious, and convinced of her own importance, but she was also smart. She had cunning. This book is "All the President's Men" by Gretchen Wieners. All the gossip, none of the smarts. Anecdotes are delivered bluntly and chronologically. There's no finesse, and no attempt at building a plot. Wolff really did just sit down and type out everything he heard.

2) The only story in here that I haven't seen mentioned in the media and thought was interesting was that Anna Wintour, famous editor of "Vogue" and real life inspiration for Miranda Priestly in "The Devil Wears Prada", visited Trump Tower during the post-election, pre-Inauguration transition period to try to secure the position of Ambassador to the United Kingdom. According to the book, she also did the same thing to President Obama.

3) This book has a surprising amount of backstory. If you're not sure how Steve Bannon got attached to the campaign and ended up in the White House, how Kellyanne Conway jumped from the Cruz campaign to the top of the current administration, or who the Mercers are, this book will do a lot to clear that up for you. While people have attacked the accuracy of some of the book, nobody has attacked those pieces, so I assume it is a fairly accurate history lesson.

4) "Jarvanka" is a wonderful nickname.

5) Jarvanka, if the book is to be believed, somehow still imagine themselves to be liberal Democrats despite being key players in this administration. They do not seem to understand that their brand is permanently tainted. I imagine this is a consequence of being so wealthy that you are insulated from direct criticism.

6) So much of this administration's behavior, and the stories that keep coming out in the news of secret meetings, financial entanglements, and botched security clearances, among other things, can be explained by the book's basic premise that this campaign never expected to win. They didn't care who they were actually meeting with, because they never imagined that their meetings would be scrutinized. Who looks at who the losers talked to? He never released his tax returns because he never imagined that his finances would actually matter. That's why there was no plan to divest from businesses, or to hire a staff, or to fill a slate of appointments. They didn't think any of it would be necessary.

So... was this a good book?

I think so. It was interesting, and if even half of it is true, it was very enlightening. I'm sure it won't be the only book about this administration, but I doubt any of the others will make this big of a splash.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Lois Lane: Special Victims Unit

Back in 2014, when my friend Kristin still lived in North Carolina, I went to visit her for a few days. We went to thrift stores and sight seeing, I made her watch the "Saved by the Bell" Lifetime movie, and while we were at the only comic store that she knew of in her city (it somehow never occurred to either of us to google and see if there were others), I bought the two issue "Lois Lane" miniseries from 1986.

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

This miniseries is important to the publishing history of Lois Lane in a few different ways: it's her first miniseries, and it is the first Lois Lane comic that doesn't also have Superman's name on it, despite there having been over a hundred issues of her own series. That one was technically titled "Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane".

This miniseries is also important because it is the weirdest, darkest Lois Lane story ever published.

I honestly can't believe DC Comics published this at all, and I get the impression that they initially didn't want to. It seems like something they commissioned and paid for, and then decided to shelve for a while. I don't know for sure that I'm right, but here's why I think so:

1) It was published in 1986, but takes place during the plot structure of the Superman books in 1983. Specifically, it follows almost directly out of "Superman" #388, and picks up a subplot in that book. Why write a miniseries about a subplot from three years earlier?

2) It was clearly written to be 4 issues long, which was the size of most DC miniseries at the time, but was then published as two double sized issues, with four chapters total, that both stop on a cliffhanger exactly halfway through each issue that is immediately resolved on the next page.

3) This miniseries was never referenced in comics again.

While this book was being published and sold, DC was already in the process of publishing the "Crisis on Infinite Earths" 12 issue maxi-series, which rewrote and streamlined their entire continuity. One effect of that rewrite was that the Superman books were rebooted entirely, which means that DC was publishing this book even while they knew it would immediately be wiped from their continuity. Everything about this just seems like they paid someone to write it, saw how badly the story doesn't actually work, let it sit on a shelf for a few years, and then said, "Hell, we might as well try to make some money out of it anyway," and dropped it onto the news stands.

Given that much buildup, you're probably wondering what's so terrible about this story, and that's a little harder to explain. It was clearly written with the best of intentions, and was intended to be a serious, "real world issues" book of the type that DC had published before with varying degrees of success. This book is a little different, though, because it not only tries to be ultra-serious, but it's also one of DC's earliest attempts at publishing the kind of grim and gritty work that independent publishers and their competition had already been doing. It slightly predates "Watchmen" (the second issue of this series has an ad for the upcoming "Watchmen" series), predates the Joker beating the second Robin to death, and came out at a time when DC was more or less seen as the CBS network of comics: old, kind of stuffy, and mostly filled with the kind of stories your parents might like.

Lois Lane, whose comic for decades involved scheming to get Superman to marry her, turning into monsters by accident, and getting caught up in wacky schemes, wasn't quite the right character for a super-serious story about child abduction and murder, but damn, they sure did try.

Our story opens with everyone at the Daily Planet newspaper worried about Lois, and pretty much assuming she was in the middle of a breakdown. She had recently broken up with Superman, and had recently blown a big story about the Middle East. Lois was supposed to be conducting a joint interview with fighting Middle Eastern leaders, but the peace talks fell apart. At the same time, Lois and Superman's relationship fell apart, so he flew her off somewhere (at her request) to think about her life. While she was doing that, the peace talks suddenly got back on track, and since nobody could find Lois, Lana Lang flew in and conducted the joint interview for her job on the nightly news, where Clark Kent was her co-anchor and boyfriend.

In the previously mentioned "Superman" #388, Lana is collecting her accolades from her colleagues at an office party:

From “Superman” #388, DC Comics 1983

when Lois arrives to congratulate her. Lana responds in typical Lana fashion by throwing some of the shade that she's so famous for:

From “Superman” #388, DC Comics 1983

Lois responds by throwing punch:

From “Superman” #388, DC Comics 1983

and Lana responds to that by actually trying to drown Lois in punch:

From “Superman” #388, DC Comics 1983

They end up in a knock down, drag out fight in front of all of their coworkers:

From “Superman” #388, DC Comics 1983

and then Lois is suddenly clawing at a Superman recycling poster and weeping:

From “Superman” #388, DC Comics 1983

Again, this took place in front of everyone from the newspaper department and everyone from the TV news division. That's why everyone is convinced that Lois may be cracking up: because maybe she is.

And then Lois' miniseries starts, and things go fully off the rails. The story starts with Lois pushed to the back pages of the newspaper, and trying to go on dates with guys who aren't Superman. Our story begins with Lois ditching her date, and taking his car, to follow some police cars to the docks:

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

At this point, there's still a chance that we're about to end up in a regular Lois Lane story. "Maybe it's treasure from a shipwreck!" Yes, maybe! Or, maybe not.

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

Again, this could have been a very serious story about child abduction, but the writing goes so far over the top that it lands somewhere on the other side. "A grotesque parody of a cabbage patch doll." Just let that wording sink in for a minute.

Lois is, understandably, shaken by this.

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

Lois is, apparently, also a former Republican voter, giving the familiar "I never cared about this problem until it was my problem" that anybody who watches the news has heard dozens of times. She heads home to get some sleep before work, and the book decides to introduce a subplot that goes nowhere: Lois' sister Lucy, a flight attendant, tries to get in touch with her between planes.

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

This will come up several times during the story, but Lucy's presence will never actually be important to the story.

Lois goes to work the next day, determined to write a hard hitting investigative piece about missing and exploited children, and the editor is having none of it. Lois no longer commands the front page after blowing the Middle East story, but he's willing to throw her a bone and let her write something for Janice, the Features and Lifestyles editor. Lois responds in predictable Lois fashion:

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

"Your section of the paper is garbage, Janice." She doesn't actually say that, but she might as well. Janice, rather than firing her, decides to let Lois go work on her story anyway, and Lois immediately heads out to interview the head of a child-finding agency. Again, the writing tries so hard to make this lady seem gritty and real world that it's almost laughable:

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

"I stopped, for a while..." and then she launches into two or three pages of the terrible things she's seen, the missing kids, the families getting called about bodies, and the kids who are never found at all. Lois takes lots of notes, especially when a family whose toddler daughter was just kidnapped at the hamburger stand comes rushing in, weeping and blaming each other.

Meanwhile, Lucy is still trying to get in touch with Lois, and goes to Clark and Lana's apartment.

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

Lana just can't help those shady side comments. She and Clark do try to get the sisters in touch:

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

and Lois is as nice to Lucy as she was to Janice. Lana, sensing an opportunity for drama, immediately takes action:

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

Her motives are predictably Lana-esque:

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

but again, this side plot never goes anywhere. Clark isn't in the mood for it, anyway, because he's worried:

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

He's also getting his hair combed there because he and Lana are about to do the nightly news broadcast. I assume that, normally, Clark combs his own hair.

After some more investigating, Lois comes home to find that the doorman let Lucy into her apartment, and they have another heated conversation while, weirdly, Lois strips down and takes a bath in front of her sister:

From “Lois Lane” Book One, DC Comics, 1986

Is this something that sisters do?

Lucy stomps out, and the next morning she and Jimmy Olsen cook up some sort of plan:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

They're going to somehow help Lois with this story by pretending to get married.

Lois is out helping herself, going to interview the mother of a girl who was abducted and then found.

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

Patty's mom is happy to answer questions, but she also wants to talk to Lois about breaking up with Superman:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

Lois redirects the mother, finally, and we get to their story:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

and then, in case you're not sure what they mean by "did things to her", DC goes all the way over the top again:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

explaining that a toddler "wuzn't no virgin anymore". In a Lois Lane comic. Between some wacky hijinks with Jimmy and Lucy faking a wedding and Lois talking to a stranger about not being in love with Superman. This book veers wildly in tone the entire way through.

Heading back to the office, Lois runs into Lana on the sidewalk out front, and Lana suddenly wants to help:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

Lois isn't having it.

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

And there we are. This is a super serious, grim and gritty real world story with sad detectives and jaded chain smoking social workers and sexually abused little girls, but now we're about to throw in a few panels of Lois and Lana fighting over Clark. Fortunately, Lana isn't down for it.

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

Lois IS raving. She's screaming at Lana in the middle of a sidewalk and Lana, for once, walks away. She, at least, remembers that this is supposed to be a serious comic, and will not lower herself to pulling hair or shoving Lois into traffic. Lois, friendless and alone, heads to a halfway house for troubled teens.

The troubled teens want to talk about her breakup with Superman.

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

At this point, it's almost hilarious that every stranger on the street wants to discuss her relationship, but as she leaves the halfway house she finds another person on the sidewalk wanting to discuss it:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

Lois isn't waiting, Clark. She's got a cape and a coat and a purse and no more time for your crap.

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

Did I mention that, at this time, neither Lois nor Lana is aware that Clark and Superman are the same person?

Meanwhile, Lucy and Jimmy have turned their fake marriage into a story about... something... to help Lois:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

and Lois continues not to have time for them:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

and that's it for that subplot. The book never tells us what the story was about or why it required Jimmy and Lucy to pretend to be married.

On her way to a press conference about another abducted child, Lois runs into Lana, who invites her into the green room for coffee:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

Wait, why does Lana need support? And why does she break down during the police briefing?

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

It turns out that Lana got upset when the police mentioned that the baby's ear had been sent in by the kidnappers, and the reason why is where this story goes all the way into bonkers territory:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

DC Comics decided to use the last four pages of the miniseries to reveal that Lana, while absent for a few years in the Superman comics in the early 1980's, had a secret marriage, had a secretly kidnapped and murdered baby, was keeping the baby's ear in her bank box downtown with her savings bonds because she didn't know what else to do with it, and then they never referenced any of this in a DC Comic again.

And that's it.

Lois and Lucy make up:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

Lois' story gets published, they all go to a funeral for the child from the beginning of the story:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

and there's a six month later epilogue showing that the killer was never found:

From “Lois Lane” Book Two, DC Comics, 1986

and that's it. The miniseries just ends.

And DC Comics never speaks of it again.