Some Quick Thoughts on The Sandman

Every now and again you’ll read something that makes you wish you’d taken a course in the classics, gone to bible study classes, and made sure you never missed Shakespeare in the park. It’s the kind of thing reading Joyce always does to me; God he makes himself look so bloody clever (for better or worse). The Sandman is one of those things in a way that no other comic I’ve ever read has been, but it does it in a way that doesn’t remind you of an undergraduate scratching his pimples. 

Gaiman does a fantastical thing with his writing that, as far as I can tell (I’ve read Good Omens and some of his Batman stories and that’s it for my prior experience with Gaiman), is his main method. He has this knowledge of all these disparate storytelling traditions and mythologies and he synthesises them all together into something new and exciting. The story that exemplifies this, and I think the standout in all of The Sandman, takes place in the run of issues collected in Season of Mists. Dream ventures to hell to try and recover the soul of a woman he wronged a long time ago. Arriving in hell, he finds that Lucifer is in the process of stacking chairs and turning out the lights, and Lucifer gifts Dream the key to hell, making him the new lord. The knowledge that Dream has become the owner of a prime piece of real estate in the planes draws the attention of various gods and beings, among them Anubis, Odin, and a couple of angels sent from heaven to observe. Gaiman does a wonderful job elucidating their claims and extrapolating out rivalries and disagreements that these rival pantheons of mythical beings might have, and he comes up with a really wonderful twist on just what it means to reign in hell. 

Another standout for me was the issue included in Dream Country that posits a backstory for the creation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Gaiman doesn’t just mess with mythology, he messes with the real world too, and he chooses points to do it that have just enough real, factual meat on them to make them believable, but just vague enough to allow him the room to come up with his own magical history that is really delightful to watch unfold. In this case, Dream commissioned Shakespeare to write the play as a kind of gift to the very folk of faerie that are portrayed in the play, and it is one of two Shakespeare plays commissioned by Dream. I love it when writers do things like this, and Gaiman evidently had the reading to continually flex his intellectual muscle and remake the world and our imaginations in his image. 

I don’t read graphic novels often and I write about them even less often, but I’m aware I need to at least mention the art. It is consistently fantastic. It is weird and psychedelic enough to truly convey that we are dealing with realms that are not our own without being an unreadable mess. There are also some wonderfully horrific images throughout the run. A standout is a demon with mouths for nipples. In fact, mouths come up a lot. The Corinthian is a highlight whenever he appears and he never gets less horrifying. Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Chris Bachalo, Michael Zulli, Kelley Jones, Charles Vess, Colleen Doran, Matt Wagner, Stan Woch, Bryan Talbot, Shawn McManus, Duncan Eagleson, John Watkiss, Jill Thompson, P. Craig Russell, Alec Stevens, Mike Allred, Shea Anton Pensa, Gary Amaro, Marc Hempel, Glyn Dillon, Dean Ormston, Teddy Kristiansen, Richard Case, and Jon J Muth do a great job. There are more personnel but the names will be longer than this little piece, I just don’t talk about graphic novels very often and didn’t want to just talk about the writer. You can find a list of personnel here.

I did read Overture after reading the ten volumes of the main run of The Sandman. I found the ideas intriguing but it felt less grounded, if that’s possible. I am very happy we get some acknowledgement of just where the endless came from. The art was again fantastic; even more colourful and riotous, in a few instances hard to follow, but hey. It’s a journey through time and dimensions and all that. 

I am sad I put off reading The Sandman for so long but I am kinda glad at the same time. A lot of it would have gone over my head when I was younger and looking at “Best Graphic Novels Ever” lists and going “Oh ok I’ll read everything by Alan Moore then.” I strongly suspect The Sandman will make for a lovely re-read in ten or so years time; hopefully when I have a bit more of the encyclopaedic reading I suspect Gaiman has. 

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Some Thoughts on Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City

I picked up this book on the strength of the title. I had never heard of K.J. Parker, who I’ve since learned is a pretty big deal in fantasy fiction. I don’t know how good an introduction this is to his work but I can tell you I really liked it and will most likely try more of his fiction when I get around to reading more fantasy. When I came across Sixteen Ways at the library I imagined it being a bit like the movie Zombieland, a fun fictional account of the ways and rules you have to bear in mind when defending a walled city. What I got instead was a great character driven story with a very funny and flawed narrator that happens to also be about the defence of a walled city. 

It is the quality of the voice that really makes this novel. Orhan, the protagonist and narrator, is a lovable scoundrel, an outsider making his way in a society that values him for his skills as much as it derides him for the colour of his skin. It is this voice that transforms what could have been a dry account of a siege into something much more. If Plutarch or The Decline and Fall were written like this, I’d have read them already. The voice and the setup reminded me of something else that I couldn’t quite figure out at first, but I’ve since realised that it’s The Martian. It’s that same quality of voice that exemplifies how a good teacher can make anything interesting and this point is only highlighted further in the last couple of pages that occur outside the narrative and frame the whole story as a historical document.

I recently learned a term that perfectly describes the kind of fiction that I apparently enjoy a lot, and that term is Competence Porn. It’s lovely to read about interesting, engaged people dealing with complex problems that I don’t know much, if anything, about. I like seeing Sherlock solve crimes, I like seeing Mark Watney conduct experiments, I like seeing Orhan build bridges and battlements. From what I gather K.J. Parker has written quite a lot of novels about engineers, so he’ll probably end up being my new favourite author. 

Some spoilers coming up, be warned. 

Sixteen Ways is also an exquisitely paced novel. The rationing of information gives you enough to puzzle about while also teasing you with spaces your imagination has to fill. In fact, it creates the kind of atmosphere that I imagine there would be in a siege. Nobody except the supreme commander really has all the information, probably because everyone having the whole picture would freak everybody out, so every scrap of information is highly valued and bitterly protected. And even Orhan doesn’t know everything. The great mystery of the first half of the novel is; who is leading the army against the walled city? Having the leader of the enemy forces be an old friend who hates the city for the same reasons Orhan might, and was actually counting on Orhan to be his inside man without Orhan even knowing it, is a master stroke. It’d be easy for this revelation to come too early and let all the air out of the story, but Parker’s choice of villain effortlessly sets up the rest of the conflict; Orhan has more reasons than most to hate the empire he is trying to defend, and now it’s revealed that to defend it, he’ll have to fight against his old friend, a friend he agrees with almost all the way. It’s always nice to see a scoundrel get some depth and boy does Orhan get some depth. 

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is a fantastic novel and I am really glad I picked it up on a whim. Don’t you love it when you pick something up on the spur of the moment and it turns out to be something you really love, something you’re gonna tell everybody to read? What was the last book you chanced upon that ended up being great?

Some Thoughts on the Haiku of Basho

Haiku is something I’ve always been aware of as a kind of trope but my first real exposure to it was through the lens of the imagist poets, in particular this Penguin collection. I fell in love with Ezra Pound’s most famous poem, In a Station of the Metro. I think I’ve memorised it; I’ll try and reproduce it from memory below for the benefit of those who haven’t read it.

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd-

Petals on a wet, black, bough.

So close. It really has colon instead of a hyphen, and I added an extra comma. Still. I loved this poem and I still do. I think it is probably the best poem ever written in the same way I think The Ramones’ first album is the best rock and roll album ever recorded; it is the essence of the thing. Any less, and it wouldn’t be what it is. Any more, and it would add nothing. They say exactly what they mean to say in exactly the amount of words they mean to say it, and it boggles my mind that Pound was such good friends with people like Joyce and Eliot; interminable, deliberately obscure windbags. In a Station of the Metro conjures a very sharp and defined image (hence, imagist), and uses an abrupt shift in rhythm to highlight the turnaround common to haiku. The line of iambic hexameter grinds to a halt in the second line, mimicking the disembarking a metro train and also jarring us into a moment of revelation as we notice the similarity between a grimy urban scene and a glittering natural one. And then it rhymes, too. It is perfectly constructed and it breaks my fucking heart every time I remember who Ezra Pound actually was.   

The imagist conception of poetry is always the one that has resonated the most with me, and the one that has most informed my own poetry. I like Shelley’s attempt at a new national myth, I like Eliot’s decaying epics, I like Plath’s deeply personal poetry, but it’s the poem as image that always struck me hardest, and that’s what lead me to picking up this edition of Basho when I came across it at a library. I don’t read enough poetry, and since my university days I have rarely sought poetry out. I was happy to let this happenstance take me where it would. 

I ended up really enjoying Basho. Some of these haiku have a real, crushing weight to them; huge ideas and feelings condensed down to an ultra-fine, ultra-dense point. Yes mate. This is what poetry should be all about. There’s plenty in this collection that made me realise that, oh yeah, the imagists just plundered another country’s poetic tradition and used it for themselves. I even used to think that the imagists were a bit more free and easy with the metrical constraints compared to haiku, but no, that’s from haiku too; Basho let no barrier come between him and the sentiment or image he meant to convey. 

And a lot of these Haiku are conveying images and particularly feelings. They’re about how certain places looked at certain times of years. What it’s like lay awake of a night listening to your cat snore. Travels and the striking of newness. Routine and impressions that will never change, especially now that they’ve been captured. Knowing where Pound got his ideas, I’ve always known I’d eventually have to go and get some from the wellspring if I wanted to keep up the pretence of being a reasonable student of poetry, and I’ll be honest, I had not heard of Basho before I picked up this book. Maybe I should have listened harder back in the day. I know Pound did at least acknowledge his fondness for far eastern poetry, but I am not sure if he’d read Basho, or anyone else. I’m glad I also picked up a Penguin Book of Japanese Verse, and The Penguin Book of Haiku. I’m sure I’ll find such perfect, glinting poetry as to make me rue that I ever bothered to try myself.

You Should Go to When Polly Met Fergie. Here’s Why.

The other day I went to When Polly Met Fergie for lunch with my partner and had a really nice time, so I decided I’d write a little review of the place. I don’t normally do things like restaurant reviews here because I normally eat at the kind of place there’s no point reviewing, but this is a lovely little independent place and those are the kind of places that can really benefit from word of mouth. If you want to know what the Burger King at Serpentine Green is like, let me know. 

We ended up at When Polly on a pretty quiet afternoon, but there were still people there sitting with drinks and reading. I think it bodes well for a place when people are willing to pay to spend more time there with a book. I wouldn’t do it anywhere I didn’t feel completely comfortable. Westgate Arcade is a pretty light and airy place and When Polly fully leans into this with its large unobstructed windows. Westgate Arcade is one of the quickest ways to get from Cowgate or the Cathedral Square to Westgate as a pedestrian, so there is plenty of foot traffic, which makes this a great place for people watching if you’re that way inclined. There was pleasant jazz music filtering through the whole time that met Brian Eno’s standards regarding ambient music. If I chose to pay attention, it was interesting, if I didn’t, it just blended into the background. I like jazz but I do not understand it, and I am glad they chose demurely because I don’t know how well Albert Ayler goes with lunch.  

We were immediately greeted, seated, and given menus by an attentive and friendly server who remained attentive and friendly throughout our stay. We didn’t interact with any other staff but the atmosphere was generally welcoming and good natured. There are wide, comfy benches running along the walls, and reasonably comfy chairs around some stark white marble tables. It goes well with the olive green walls and the overall effect is a bit boutiquey and bohemian, which, well, it is a vegan jazz club, you know? 

I ordered the southern fried seitan with fries and coleslaw and my partner ordered the fried banana blossom with seaweed fries and tartare sauce. The food arrived quickly. I’d never tried seitan before but I had heard it can be good for people who miss meat because it can be cooked like meat (in this instance, fried like chicken), and is chewy. I really, really miss meat. If there was such a thing as ethical meat, I’d be all over it the same way I’d be all over cigarettes that don’t cause cancer. The seitan was absolutely bloody delicious. I could taste the herbs and spices in the coating and the texture and chewiness of the whole thing was just sublime. And you get a lot of it! It was heaven and thinking about it makes me want to go back. The fries were great too, nice and crispy and fluffy inside, everything you want from a french fry. The coleslaw was red cabbage and red onion and it won me over very quickly. I normally don’t like coleslaw but it leant a nice edge that helped balance the stodginess of fried potatoes and fried seitan. My partner had a bit and enjoyed it just as much as I did. 

I swapped a bit of my setian for some of the banana blossom. The batter was lovely. Exactly what you’d get in any good chip shop, just crispy, tasty batter. I’d never had banana blossom before either, but it’s apparently a good substitute for fish. My partner certainly enjoyed it and agreed it was very fishy. I enjoyed the bit I tried too. The texture of the banana blossom was flakey and meaty, and that’s the texture of a decent bit of fried cod, so it won me over instantly. The tartare sauce was very, very good, the best I’ve ever had, and I think that’s down to that sheer amount of whole and chopped capers in it. I love capers.

We were there on a weekday afternoon for lunch and we didn’t see the upstairs (the cocktail lounge/jazz bar section) at all, but for a pleasant, calm weekday lunch it was lovely. Tasty food is good, tasty vegan food is even better, and the prices are pretty reasonable considering that it’s an independent business that does it’s best to source ingredients locally. I’ve been transitioning away from eating meat for a while now and think this place exemplifies just how tasty an ethical experience you can now have. I’d recommend without reservation to vegans and veggies. I’d recommend it to flexitarians or meat eaters who want to see just how damn good vegan eating can be. Any which way, you should definitely go to When Polly Met Fergie. You’ll have a nice time.  

Some Thoughts on Convenience Store Woman

You have to play the game. 

Only the very rich or the very lucky get away with not having to play the game. Nobody else gets a choice. The game has no rules and no clear win condition, but it is a game and you have to play to play it all the same, because you are a social animal borne from a long line of animals that succeeded at being social by default, and you have to interact with the other animals. 

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is hands down the best depiction of alienation and weirdness that I have ever read. It beats the absolute shit out of The Catcher in the Rye which I think is the reference work for the “out of step” novel. Holden is really fucking whiny and his life is only gonna get harder as he gets actual adult problems and you know that he’s in an incredibly privileged position and all he has to do is give it a go to live a full and happy life. I think it is much easier to give a shit about a protagonist who actually tries and Keiko, bless her, tries her damnedest. 

Keiko knows she doesn’t fit in, but she also knows that she has to disguise it as best she can to get by, and anyone on the more awkward end of the scale will find the first fifty odd pages, where we learn Keiko’s backstory, to be page after page of “it me”. Her limited understanding of social graces gets her into a lot of trouble, and she learns to withdraw to make things easier for herself and others. The convenience store begins as a whim to try and get her out of her shell and morphs into a part of her, or she morphs into a part of it, it depends how you feel. 

I do mean morph literally. One of the main conceits is that Keiko, living as she does from food and drink purchased exclusively in the convenience store that she works, is made up of the store, has become a part of the store. This, along with all her personal feelings centering not around herself and her own desires, but how it will impact her fitness to work in the store, make it readable as an anti-work novel. It’d be easy to see this novel as dystopic; in the 21st century even the lowliest of jobs is intensely regulated and bleeds into the personal life of the employee, but I think that’d miss the point. Keiko benefits immensely from the structure and the clearly defined rules of the environment she’s found. It is an order of things where she understands her place and is valued for her contribution. It’s the apotheosis of the idea that a part time job is edifying for a young person. The thing that stands out to me as the starkest criticism of wage work is that Keiko has spent half her life at the convenience store, knows more about it than anyone, and hasn’t been given a shot at the permanent managers post even while four or five different managers come and go and Keiko has already demonstrated she could do the job. It reminded me of this news story.

There are small games and there is the big game that encompasses all of them, and it is rarely considered polite to keep beating the same easy game you have already more than mastered (unless you’re a speedrunner, but that’s by the by). The drama in the novel comes from Keiko’s family and friends expecting her to have moved on; to have got a better job (maybe that promotion), to have found a romantic partner, to have demonstrated ambition. Keiko is basically asexual, but she can’t go telling her parents that. Introducing a scummy man as a contrast is a delightful way of highlighting just what she isn’t missing out on. You know a guy like Shiraha, or you’ve read about them on the news. He mostly spouts big, intellectual-sounding phrases that are as deep as a spill on aisle five and it wouldn’t surprise you if they were copied and pasted from r/incel. Keiko is quick to see the mutual advantage in at least presenting herself as being in a relationship with him but he also serves to highlight the fact that Keiko is fine on her own. 

It becomes clearer and clearer that Shiraha would be difficult to control for long, not to mention being disagreeable to live with, and it is with triumph that Keiko pretty much dumps him for her convenience store. You could read it as sad that her station in life is such a relatively low one, but aren’t we told to try and find happiness with what we have? Aren’t we told to make the best of it? Keiko is an extreme example of finding joy in everyday life and in being happy where you are. Honestly, you’re happy for her. She knows what she likes, where she fits in, and is going to keep doing it. Good for her. 

I can’t comment on the translation, but there was nothing that jarred. This is a weird little novel written in a weird, hypnotic style that reflects the inner life of the protagonist. It is short and smooth with a chewiness that is not readily apparent but will keep you thinking about it long after the automatic doors have closed behind you. 

So, I Tried a Filet-O-Fish

I know I do my best to talk about books on this blog but I do sometimes talk about other things, so I figured in that grand tradition I would write about the Filet-O-fish sandwich from McDonalds. Because the content gods demand more content.

I recently (past couple of years) went from eating meat all the time, to eating meat on and off, to not eating meat anymore.  I’ve written about this before, but in short; I’d always known it was wrong, but had always been able to compartmentalise the guilt and carry on. I lost the ability and that was that. I still liked the taste of meat, the texture, and the smell; but the accompanying overwhelm of my moral sense wasn’t something I could deal with.

Not eating meat will really cut down on your options when you want to eat some dirty fast food. I am not the kind of person that has tried everything on the McDonalds menu but I did miss being able to just walk into a place like that and just get a hit of calories, salt, and fat. You have to bear in mind that I live in Peterborough, which doesn’t have all that much left in its city centre barr restaurants and takeaways; though I suppose I should be glad there is at least something left.

I didn’t decide to still eat fish, but I happened to eat some while visiting family and noticed that I didn’t feel guilty about it. And the texture was close enough that it allayed some of the cravings I was experiencing for meat. Well there you go. I was a pescatarian. Then I read The Shadow Over Innsmouth and really didn’t feel bad about eating fish.

After walking past McDonalds for the umpteenth time and defeating the urge to go in for the unpteenth time, I decided to just try the Filet-O-Fish. After all, I was still eating fish, and it might be enough like those burgers I used to enjoy to help me with some of those cravings.

(By the way, the actual solution to this problem is the No Bull Burger from Iceland. It is one of those foodstuffs perfect for people like me. It looks like meat, it tastes like meat, it feels like meat. For all intents and purposes it is meat. But it doesn’t make me feel guilty.)

I got a Filet-O-Fish with some fries and a coke because the fries and a coke are a sure thing.

I was warned that the Filet-O-Fish wasn’t all that, but I hadn’t had McDonalds in years and was hoping for something that might qualify as a treat. But damn, it wasn’t good. The bun had a really strange texture. Like, it was oddly rubbery and flavourless. The fish itself was just a wider, flatter fish finger. The crunch was nice, but there really wasn’t much fish in it. Like, when you’re comparing unfavourably to store brand fish fingers in terms of your fish content, it isn’t good at all. The cheese will never not be an odd choice to me to put in a fish sandwich, but at least it was flavourless. I doubt it would have helped had I been able to taste it, but as it stands it just helped goop up the already stodgy bun. The tartare sauce was pretty good. Nice and sharp. Now pickles and capers, those are flavours you can see going with fish. I might give tartare sauce in general more of a go if I carry on eating fish, even if I still don’t really like mayonnaise.

But I’m probably not going to carry on eating fish, especially now I’ve realised that the dirty, fast version of it that I was craving didn’t actually exist. I like fish and chips as much as any English person, but it’s something I could live without. I mentioned when it came to not eating meat that I was also aware of its huge environmental impact and all the rest of it. Well, I was having a worry free time eating my fish until I read about the astonishing percentage of plastic waste in the ocean that is made up of discarded fishing equipment. And declining fish stocks and all the rest of it. I come again to the point where I can no longer lock the guilt away, and am probably going to have to stop eating seafood. Which will suck, because I have just developed a taste for sushi.

I have no illusions about saving the world; I just want to be able to live with myself as much as possible.

I hope I don’t start feeling bad about eating dairy products but these feelings about my own diet have only been going in one direction, haven’t they?

A Gentle Reminder about a Hard Thing: Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

Self-help is not a genre I am interested in 99% of the time, but I liked the cover of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, a gentle blue with gold accents, and I liked the title, something that could be attached to a Don DeLillo novel, and that was enough to get me to pick it off a library shelf. I read it in a couple of bus journeys and spent the whole time enraptured by the voice, loving the feeling that I was absorbing wisdom, like I was making a conscious effort to listen to the stories of someone I know won’t be around forever.

The voice is of paramount importance, because really, none of what is in this book is wisdom. As snarky as you might feel about the commonness of common sense, a lot of people will be familiar with the main ideas in this book.

  • You are better equipped to deal with your belongings than anyone else
  • You probably don’t need all the things you have
  • Space is a resource like any other and must be managed
  • Your environment is a reflection of yourself
  • Focus on one thing at a time
  • It’s never too early to start planning for the inevitable
  • Death is inevitable

See that last one. Not very cheery, is it? But said the right way, and this book is a masterclass in saying things the right way, this feels more like being gently reminded of important things than it does being hit over the head with moral maxims. Death is inevitable but it can be prepared for; here are some reminders of what you might want to get done before you die. Margareta Magnusson’s conversational mixture of anecdotes, advice, speculations, jokes, and recipes, goes a long way to making the impact of her reminders about the inevitability of death and the mess often left behind a gentle one.

I am twenty eight and hopefully a lot of Magnusson’s advice won’t apply to me for a while. That said, she includes some great hints on broaching the subject with other people (grandparents whose estate you will have to help deal with, for example), which I think makes this book one that is well worth reading at any stage of life. For someone my age, it is a perspective on a life well lived, and a window into what some of my older relatives and friends might be contemplating. It will better equip me to deal with some of the awkward situations that death presents.

Read this as motivation to help you get up and get sorting your own life out, no matter your age. (Magnusson tells us it is never too early to start death cleaning.) Read it for consolation regarding your own coming death. Read it to hear the soft, happy voice of a grandparent. But whatever you do, read it. I needed this antidote to nihilism.