Eine blaßblaue Frauenschrift by Franz Werfel

At the beginning of Eine blaßblaue Frauenschrift (In a Woman’s Pale Blue Hand), life is going very well for Leonidas Tachezy as he celebrates his fiftieth birthday. Thanks to a lucky break in his student days, his natural abilities and discipline have led him to a high station in Austrian society in 1936. He is a section head in the Alpine republic’s ministry of education, part of the apparatus that takes care of public business year in and year out, regardless of the government of the day. He advises ministers, does their bidding when he judges it a good idea, and remains when they have moved to their next post or been voted out entirely. His good looks and considerable skills on the dance floor enabled him to win the heart of Amélie Paradini, a wealthy heiress whose standing gave him entrée to Vienna’s toniest circles, and whose millions gave him the backing not to care too much what they thought.

Eine blaßblaue Frauenschrift by Franz Werfel

The one significant blot on their life is the lack of children. For a time, both had been sad about the failure of their efforts to start a family, but over time, they adjusted. Now they are established, and establishment, regulars at the Opera and at the seasonal balls, a middle-aged couple whose whirlwind romance still shows in their dancing abilities, whose settled routines show in the evident pleasure that they take in each other’s company. Amélie’s background gave Leonidas standing; his success at the ministry showed that more than just birth mattered in modern Austria.

Among the dozen or more congratulatory cards and letters that Leonidas receives with the morning mail on his birthday, one stands out, at least to his eye. The handwriting, a woman’s hand in pale blue ink, is identical to the writing on another letter he received some fifteen years ago. That one, he destroyed unopened. What will he do with this one?

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/02/25/eine-blasblaue-frauenschrift-by-franz-werfel/

Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

As settings for a post-apocalypse story go, the Moscow Metro is pretty cool. It’s vast, it’s full of secrets, parts of it were actually designed to survive a nuclear war, it lends itself to an episodic tale with lots of changes of scenery. I’m not sure that a whole lot more thought went into it — the author was 23 when he published the first version of the story online — and given the success of the novel, its sequels and the video games based on its setting, I’m not sure that any more was necessary.

Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky

Make no mistake, Moscow’s Metro is a marvel. It’s the largest in the world outside of China; it’s the busiest in the world outside of Asia. At a depth of 84 meters, the station at Park Pobedy — which appears in the novel — is one of the deepest in the world, and according to folklore one of the stations designed with a nuclear exchange in mind. Communist leaders intended for early sections of the Metro to be palaces for the workers. Stations built during the 1930s and 1940s — World War II slowed Metro construction but did not bring it to a halt — were decorated to a standard previously reserved for the very wealthy. Though later phases of the Metro were built in a utilitarian style, the old ones are still gorgeous and some of the post-Communist stations have been built with panache. The operations are also a marvel. On many stretches, there is a train every 90 seconds. I don’t think that I ever saw someone run to catch a train, because they knew that another one would be along so soon. The two downsides to the Metro are the serious crowding in the spaces for transferring lines, and the system’s closing time every night at 1am.

In the world of Metro 2033, 20 years after a nuclear war, there are of course no more trains running. A much reduced population ekes out a living in the tunnels, cut off from a fantastically dangerous world above, and split into tiny factions in the world of the tunnels. The tunnels, too, are full of terrors. There are hordes of rats, there are strange noises that drive people mad, there are supposedly other monstrous creatures, there are unexplained disappearances. Settlements keep their perimeters under constant watch, and few people venture from one station to another alone, fewer still survive such a trip.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/02/24/metro-2033-by-dmitry-glukhovsky/

The Briar Book Of The Dead by A. G. Slatter

I have so little time to read lengthy books for pleasure nowadays, so it should give you an idea of exactly how much I rate A. G. Slatter that I absolutely dropped everything to be able to cover her latest novel here. I’m still over a week late with it (because so many books! So little time!) but I’m so glad I made time for this instead of letting it fall into my ever-growing slush pile.

So! The Briar Book Of The Dead starts out a little slowly, as Ellie Briar laments her status as the only Briar cousin without magic. She was trained up well in administration tho, and does her best to serve as Steward of the small town of Silverton, despite her lack of magic and accompanying lack of status. Silverton is an interesting place, being one of the few where witches like herself and her family are allowed to practice in the open by the church, given their proven ability to hold back the vampiric Leech Lords across the border. Ostensibly, they have a priest to oversee their activities to make sure they don’t get too out of hand, but one of Ellie’s responsibilities lies in creating and sending excellent forgeries from their long-dead overseer back to the capital in Lodellan.

Ellie is busy administering to Silverton and its outlying homesteads in and around Balefire Eve when her beloved grandmother Gisela, the ruling Briar Witch, unexpectedly dies. The events of her funeral shake loose Ellie’s latent ability to see the dead. At first, Ellie can’t believe what’s happening to her. Their forebear, Gilly Briar, had banished all ghosts from their town, or so legend claimed. Now Ellie can not only see the ghosts of those lingering behind with a purpose yet unfulfilled, but speak to them as well. These specters desperately need her to lay their souls to rest, and won’t take no for an answer. Whether it’s through righting wrongs for them or providing their restless spirits with absolution, Ellie has her hands full, even before she learns of a deadly conspiracy that could tear apart everything the Briar Witches have struggled for so long to build.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/02/22/the-briar-book-of-the-dead-by-a-g-slatter/

Rocket And Groot: Stranded On Planet Strip Mall! by Tom Angleberger

While on one of my periodic rage walks through my neighborhood a short while ago — tho, fortunately, these have been filled less with rage and more with a restless desire for movement recently, at least before I busted my knee again yesterday, deeeeep sigh — I stopped by one of the Little Free Libraries on my route and picked up this title for my kids. I figured that the outer space theme and copious illustrations would draw them in (plus I have a soft spot for that rascal Rocket Raccoon.)

Alas, my kids were their usual reading-resistant selves, despite this hardcover being in the same format as the many other Dog Man and Diary Of A Wimpy Kid books they adore. Perhaps I should get them to watch the Guardians Of The Galaxy movies with me: that might pique their interest! But given the current lack thereof, I figured I ought to at least give the book a read so I can make better recommendations to them as to what they might like about it (so, basically, my day job writ much smaller for my beloved little family.)

This illustrated chapter book is creatively formatted, as Rocket and Groot find themselves shipwrecked on a small, uncharted planet after a fearsome fight with space piranhas. With only the talking tape dispenser from their old (“borrowed”) space ship for company, they embark on an exploration of this strange new world, in search of both sustenance and a way back into space.

The closest landmark to them is a strip mall: weird, but not too, too out of the ordinary. Groot wants to find nutrients, but Rocket thinks it might not be a bad idea to stop by a dry cleaner’s first to get some of the space piranha battle stains out of his Guardians vest. The robot running the dry cleaners is eager to help, but also eager to guide Rocket to some of the other amenities, while Groot goes off in search of food elsewhere. Chaos, ofc, ensues.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/02/15/rocket-and-groot-stranded-on-planet-strip-mall-by-tom-angleberger/

I Escaped A Chinese Internment Camp by Fahmida Azim, Anthony Del Col & Josh Adams

So I know that that order of attribution seems weird, as Fahmida Azim is the artist, Anthony Del Col the reporter and Josh Adams the art director of this Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novella. Like, who even puts the art director’s name on the cover of a book? But once you look at the contents, you’ll understand why, as Mr Adams’ tight direction keeps the book laser focused on telling its important, painful story.

This story revolves around the real life ordeal of Zumrat Dawut who, if posterity is kind, will be seen as a Muslim martyr who refused to renounce her faith despite torture by the Chinese government. By the grace of God and the American government, she escaped China and lives in the US with her family now. And I’ll be honest, it’s nice to read a story where US Immigration does the right thing. It restores my faith in the American system, a system that seems to be under constant attack by the most fearful and cynical of our fellow citizens even as the rest of us keep trying to make it better.

Zumrat is ethnically Uyghur, and was born in Urumqi, East Turkistan, a part of China. She’s already a mother of three when, in 2016, the government begins accelerating its suspicions of non-Han Chinese and, especially, Muslims. Her neighbors start throwing out anything connecting them to Islam, for fear of being beaten, arrested or worse. Two years later, she reports to the local police station for what she thinks is a routine check-in. Thus begins an ordeal for her and her entire family, as she’s taken away to a re-education camp where she’s routinely abused for being Muslim and, at least once, for being kind to a fellow prisoner.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/02/13/i-escaped-a-chinese-internment-camp-by-fahmida-azim-anthony-del-col-josh-adams/

The Road by Vasily Grossman

Vasily Grossman is one of the great writers of the twentieth century, and The Road is a very good place to start reading his work. Born in the Ukrainian city of Berdychiv when it was part of the Russian Empire, Grossman experienced the Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing civil war as a teen. He began writing short stories while studying chemical engineering at Moscow State University, and one of his early stories drew favorable notice from influential Soviet writers Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Bulgakov. He worked for a time in Donetsk, back when it was called Stalino, but by the mid-1930s he was both living in Moscow and able to write full-time.

The Road by Vasily Grossman

He came into his own as a writer when he worked as a war correspondent for the Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). Grossman witnessed and wrote about the Battle of Stalingrad, the great tank battle at Kursk, and the Soviet campaign to capture Berlin. In Stalingrad, he spent more than three months on the right bank of the Volga (p. 66), where house-to-house fighting between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht raged and the war in Europe was decided. He was one of the first reporters to see the Nazi extermination camp at Treblinka, which he reached in July 1944. Many of his dispatches are collected in A Writer at War, which is probably the other good place to start reading Grossman, as his best-known novels, Stalingrad and Life and Fate are vast epics.

After the war, Grossman increasingly came into conflict with the Soviet state. His work reporting Nazi crimes against Jews was suppressed, and he himself was fortunate to escape the anti-semitic campaign of the early 1950s, which only ebbed because of Stalin’s death. The cultural thaw of the Khrushchev years had its limits, as Grossman discovered when he submitted the manuscript of Life and Fate for publication. The authorities not only refused publication, they confiscated every copy of the manuscript that they could find, going so far as to take the typewriter ribbons that Grossman had used to write the novel. Only Solzhenitsyn’s work was as thoroughly repressed. Grossman died of cancer in 1964 at the age of 58. Life and Fate was not published until 1980; it was not published in Russia until 1988.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/02/11/the-road-by-vasily-grossman/

The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard

Before Lucius Shepard had published stories, he had the idea of a dragon who was 6,000 feet long, immobilized but not killed by a wizard’s spell ages ago, now more or less a part of the landscape with towns and villages on and around his body, which was difficult to distinguish from the other hills of the region. This was the dragon Griaule, to whom Shepard would return throughout his career: the first story in the collection, “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule,” was published in 1984; the last, “The Skull,” appeared in 2012, two years before Shepard’s own death. Throughout the stories, Griaule is vast and still, but awake, and malevolent. Some characters perceive his presence as part of the general atmosphere in the places built on his body. Others think that they have more direct access to his will, or perhaps vice versa.

The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard

The stories begin in the register of fantasy tales, with perhaps a bit of industrialization peeking over the temporal horizon. Early on, the towns also want to rid themselves of Griaule’s influence and become more or less normal places. Later, the populace of places close to Griaule appear to have accepted their lot, and some even to revel in it. In the first story, the titular man is a painter who has not met with much commercial success. When he hears of the offer by the town of Teocinte to give a vast sum to anyone who can finally kill Griaule, Meric Cattanay sees an opportunity for a great plan, or maybe a great scam. Griaule will become an enormous canvas, Teocinte will become home to a wonder of art, and the action of the paints will become the dragon’s end, chemicals finally doing what sorcery could not. Shepard sketches the decades that pass, until finally

You decided to paint a dragon, to send hundreds of men searching for malachite and cochineal beetles, to love a woman, to heighten an undertone here and there, and finally to position your body a certain way. He seemed to have reached the end of the process. What next? (p. 29)

Who has outlasted whom?

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/02/10/the-dragon-griaule-by-lucius-shepard/

You’re Not The Only One F*cking Up by Lane Moore

subtitled Breaking the Endless Cycle of Dating Mistakes.

When I picked up this book for review, I did not realize that it would become incredibly relevant to my personal life. Everything happens for a reason, and I was genuinely pleased to get a little guidance as I navigate a chaotic (and frankly exhausting!) new-again world. But even if you’re not currently in the dating trenches, this short non-fiction book has a lot of great advice for those trying to figure out their own hearts and relationships, as well as the patterns that have brought them to where they are in their emotional lives.

Lane Moore is a bestselling author and comedian whose show, Tinder Live, dissects modern dating with both humor and heart. Wanting to further highlight the universality of the confusing and occasionally self-defeating dating experience, she put out a call for horrific dating stories, several of which form the backbone of this absorbing book. Too often, it’s made clear, people make poor choices almost out of habit, ignoring things they know are bad for them in hope of finally finding The One.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/02/09/youre-not-the-only-one-fcking-up-by-lane-moore/

The Wandering Hour by Zack Loran Clark & Nick Eliopulos

I genuinely did not expect this first installment of the new middle grade horror series The Doomsday Archives to be quite as accomplished as it is but dang, what an impressive series debut!

New Rotterdam is one of those creepy coastal New England towns that definitely inspired H. P. Lovecraft’s Innsmouth (OH! I wonder if Emrys’ name was chosen in tribute to one of the contemporary authors working hard to reframe the Cthulhu mythos without Lovecraft’s rampant racism and biases. That would be really neat!) The sun rarely shines in this foggy, perpetually overcast place, and people seem to go missing with a regularity alarming to outsiders. Folktales and legends abound, almost all of the creepy kind.

Befitting the 21st century, a wiki has sprung up to help keep track of all these stories, making them feel less hallowed and distant, and more creepypasta and — as a result — disturbingly immediate. Called The New Rotterdam Wiki Project, the wiki is written and administered mostly anonymously. Emrys Houtman is one of the contributors to this project, along with his best friend Hazel. The two met at summer camp, and Emrys was super thrilled when his mom got a job that relocated them to Hazel’s town. New Rotterdam is filthy with cryptids and other weirdness, both of which he and Hazel are obsessed with finding and recording. It helps, too, that they live in the same apartment building, along with Hazel’s other best friend, Serena.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/02/08/the-wandering-hour-by-zack-loran-clark-nick-eliopulos/

Zodiac: A Graphic Memoir by Ai Weiwei, with Elettra Stamboulis & Gianluca Costantini

This gorgeous hardcover graphic memoir by celebrated artist Ai Weiwei is a must-have for his fans, and a must-read for anyone who cares about modern art and, particularly, its intersection with political protest.

For those unfamiliar, Ai Weiwei is a conceptual artist, sometime designer of architecture and longtime political dissident against the Communist government of China. His father Ai Qing was a famous poet who fell afoul of Mao Zedong and was forced into internal exile, living with his wife and young child in subsistence poverty on the fringes of the Gobi Desert. Despite their hard circumstances, Ai Qing did his best to instill history, folklore and a sense of justice into his only child, who would grow up to be the internationally acclaimed artist that he is today. Now Ai Weiwei has produced a book, illustrated by Gianluca Costantini, that loosely ties stories of the Chinese zodiac with important milestones of his own life.

To those not already familiar with Ai Weiwei’s life story, the chapters can feel a little disjointed: looking up his history certainly helped me process the vignettes and allusions better. Some of the chapters are more loosely tied to the zodiac than others, tho each strives to ground its connection in a brief but usually excellent explanation of the accompanying myth and characteristics. Tho perhaps I say that as someone familiar with the astrology: a friend with a better grounding in Ai Weiwei’s art but less knowledge of the eastern zodiac certainly had the exact opposite impression that I did (hi, Emily!)

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2024/02/05/zodiac-a-graphic-memoir-by-ai-weiwei-with-elettra-stamboulis-gianluca-costantini/