Der Zauberberg by Thomas Mann

Thirty years ago this spring I read half of Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) during travels in southern Europe and stopped when I was no longer spending long stretches of time on busses or ferries, waiting for same, or otherwise doing the things that young people do when they have plenty of time and little free cash. I also caught up with friends I had made somewhere in Greece who had taken their copy of Foucault’s Pendulum with them back to Hungary before I could finish it. So I traded Mann’s mountain for Eco’s erudition, and never really went back.

A thirty-year-old edition of Der Zauberberg by Thomas Mann

I did leave a nice crisp 100-drachma note (about 30¢) on page 516, so I would know exactly where to start again if I ever returned to Mann’s story of a Swiss sanatorium in the early years of the twentieth century. The page itself is nothing special: it’s not the end of a section, much less a chapter, of which the thousand-page book has only seven. It’s just where I happened to stop on the last day when I read any of The Magic Mountain for the next three decades.

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Giantess by J.C. Deveney & Núria Tanarit

The Story of the Girl Who Traveled the World in Search of Freedom. Translated from the original French by Dan Christensen, with localization by Mike Kennedy.

This feminist fable follows the discovery a giant baby girl in a secluded mountain valley. The farmer who discovers her takes her in to be raised as the youngest child in a family that already consists of himself, his wife and their six sons. The farmer’s wife is thrilled to finally have a daughter and names her Celeste. Her six brothers, all with distinct personalities, grow just as fond of their sister as she does of them.

So she’s devastated when the years pass and each boy grows up and leaves their isolated home. Her father refuses to even think of her leaving to explore the wider world beyond their farmstead, in large part out of fear of how she’ll be treated by the rest of humanity: not merely because she’s a giant, but also because she’s a girl. When she comes across a smooth-talking peddler, she’s thus easy prey for his con artist ways, and embarks with him on a journey that sees her enduring the worst of her father’s fears, but also attaining greater heights than anyone in her family had ever dreamed.

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Ballet Bunnies #1: The New Class by Swapna Reddy & Binny Talib

I came home last night to discover that someone had stuffed my Little Free Library with ten assorted children’s books to go with the adult mysteries I usually carry. I wonder if I’m the only person who arranges strictly by size when it comes to their LFLs? I wasn’t a huge fan of how my otherwise generous benefactor shoved the books into my neatly arranged and curated shelf, but after sorting everything by size — which meant that kids book and adult books sat neatly next to one another; I’ve always read both and see no need to segregate them — I decided to keep this cutie for myself. And honestly it was the perfect book for me to wind down my day with, a cute story with even cuter illustrations, combining two of the cutest things in the world: children’s ballet and magical bunnies.

Millie is very excited to start ballet classes at Miss Luisa’s School Of Dance. Alas that she gets off on the wrong foot with her class’ queen bee, Amber, almost as soon as she walks in the front door. To make things even worse, she swiftly discovers that she’s woefully behind everyone else, and that neither her teacher nor most of her peers have a huge amount of patience for this.

After class ends and everyone else leaves, a distraught Millie wanders the studio while waiting for her mother. A noise from the curtained stage causes her to come across four magical bunnies in tutus. The Ballet Bunnies are not only very kind to Millie, but also offer to show her how to properly do the steps she was having trouble with in class. As Millie’s mother finally arrives to pick her up, they anxiously ask whether they’ll see Millie again next week. Given the rough time she’d had in class that day, Millie genuinely doesn’t know. The Ballet Bunnies will have to do their best to restore her confidence and remind her why she ever wanted to take dance lessons in the first place.

This is an extremely cute children’s chapter book that features diverse and adorable characters as a matter of course. Binny Talib’s expressive art perfectly compliments the text, with lots of pinks, purples and pastels to perfectly match a story about kid’s ballet. Swapna Reddy’s story is surprisingly realistic, with its depiction of mean kids, dance teachers who are definitely better at dancing than teaching, and tardy moms. I also loved Samira, the fellow student who 100% did the work Miss Luisa was supposed to.

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Cla$$war (Vol 1) by Rob Williams, Trevor Hairsine & Travel Foreman

with, in my opinion, extremely important art continuity provided by colorist Len O’Grady. A transition between artists can feel really jarring, but Mr O’Grady did a spectacular job of keeping things consistent, such that I wouldn’t even have noticed a different artist on my first reading if I hadn’t already known that going in.

And while technically this is the first volume of Cla$$War, the rest has yet to be written. Will it ever be? Never say never, but I’m leaning towards no, given that the series first appeared in 2002, with the last three issues of six coming out a full two years after its debut.

That said, how do you top a book so sorrowfully prescient, that helped pave the way for not only monster cultural hits like The Boys but also demonstrated how the Internet would enable the world’s ongoing disillusionment with politics, particularly American? Sure this title seems like a natural bridge between relatively mainstream books that began to seriously question power in the real world, like Ultimate Avengers and The Authority (heck, even WildC.A.T.s), with more cynical explorations of how power is misused, a la The afore-mentioned Boys. More importantly it captures that turn of the 20th century era in American history when the public’s eyes were opened to the shocking overreach of our government. From the drug and illegal arms sales of the 80s, to the Wag The Dog expose of the 90s, onto Dubya’s copious missteps, this is a book that directs an unflinching eye at American politics in all its messiness and lies. It probably helps that this was written by a Welshman who had no illusions about this side of the Atlantic: it’s genuinely hard to think of any American in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 writing so honestly on these topics. It also probably helps that Britain has a much better history of skewering politics through comics than we do, as Alan Moore’s widely acclaimed V For Vendetta masterfully shows.

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The Ultimate RPG Campfire Card Deck by James D’Amato

subtitled 150 Cards for Sparking In-Game Conversation.

This is an interesting world- and character-building tool that, as with any tool meant to spark conversation, relies heavily on the participants to make it a success. I can see this kind of deck going over well with play groups that are interested more in collaborative acts of imagination than in hack-and-slash survival competitions or numbers-oriented dice chucking. You’d think that would be the majority of players, but the kind of openness and vulnerability involved with being honest and creative makes a lot of people’s skin itch. Things have definitely gotten better in recent years, especially with the rise of indie games, but lest we forget Dungeons & Dragons started as an intentionally deadly speed run of a war game. Why flesh out a back story and potentially grow attached to a character your Dungeon Master was almost certainly actively trying to murder?

But for playgroups that care more about telling a cool story together as opposed to scoring imaginary points against one another, this is a great way to explore and expand upon characters, relationships and setting, especially if you have the kind of gamemaster who actively listens to players and incorporates their desires into the overarching story. It’s also great for gamemasters who maybe need a filler session in the narrative, as well as for games that don’t require a gamemaster but whose players are interested in expanding on their backgrounds collaboratively.

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Laura Eilers, 1969–2023

Laura B. Eilers, the entirely lovely and often effervescent founder of The Frumious Consortium, died in mid-July — suddenly, absurdly, unexpectedly, and entirely too soon. She built community wherever she went. Frumious began as a project to bring together some of her friends from around the world with a slightly writerly bent, give them a platform, and encourage them to gyre and gimble in this virtual wabe. She had such fun sending and receiving things through the mail, encouraging others across the continents to do the same with art and flair, that she set up a web site to help people do just that, and to share their artful efforts online.

She was an ardent Captain America fan, apparently well known in their online forums. She traveled to London in 2018 specifically to see her Cap people there. She was kind enough to share some of her time in London with me. We hung out a bit, had dim sum, and took in a performance of Hamilton, not least because she had discovered that great seats in London cost less than half what mediocre seats would have cost in the Washington DC area where she lived. I’ve been trying to remember when I had last seen her in person before that, and I can’t really. She moved to DC after I left, so it probably wasn’t there, and before that I dunno. Online was a natural habitat for her, and since we found each other again — first when e-mail became common and then more strongly when social media came along — we carried on our sporadic conversation with the ease of old friends who are looking forward to knowing each other for a long time to come.

When I wrote asking whether she knew there was a Laura Eilers who was a podiatrist in Belgium, she replied “We’re a diverse lot. We also won Miss Virginia, sell vitamins, and coach cheerleading!” Picture bright blue eyes and a sly grin to go with that, and you’ve got Laura to a T.

We had known each other since middle school. She was central to a sprawling group of friends — smart, arty, off-beat people who didn’t feel that we really fit in with 1980s south Louisiana. Not everybody did all of the things, but a lot of us played D&D, read comics, read fantasy and science fiction, wrote and drew fannish things, played in the school band or orchestra, did dance, went to Rocky Horror. There were group politics and youthful drama, but there was community for teens for whom it might have otherwise been in short supply. Seeing how Laura kept connecting people throughout her life, I can’t help but think she was a big reason why. Then we finished school and practically all of us left Louisiana. Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters’ wives, as the song goes. I do know how it all got started, and though I don’t know what they’re all doing with their lives, sharing the news of Laura’s passing has helped me find some of them I hadn’t heard from in years. And there she is again, building community, even in death.

And so Frumious will keep on keeping on, like the jubjub bird that flew, writing just for you.

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Radiant Pink, Vol. 1: Across the Universe by Meghan Camarena, Melissa Flores & Emma Kubert

I’m pretty new to the Radiant universe (tho I’ve always had a weakness for the name since Magic The Gathering’s badass Radiant Archangel.) This was a pretty great way for me to get started, tho, with the backstory and ongoing adventures of the superhero known as Radiant Pink.

Eva is a video game streamer trying to hold her life together in the face of both self-doubt and the criticism of people who don’t think that what she’s doing is a real job. One of these latter is her soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, who doesn’t take her sponsorships or stressors very seriously. When Eva’s mic setup crashes one evening, her desperate search for a replacement leads her to a mysterious symbol that, much like the rest of her Radiant counterparts, imbues her with superpowers.

As Radiant Pink, Eva can teleport from place to place via neon pink portals. She uses her newfound abilities not only to fight crime but to hype up her stream, raising hundreds of thousands for charity from her small bedroom in Indiana. But not even a teleporter can be in two places at once, so she has to rope in her best friend Maddy to help keep her secret identity secret while Radiant Pink drops in from time to time to boost viewership on the EvaPlayys channel.

Maddy is worried that Eva is stretching herself way too thin, but Eva claims that becoming a superhero has also lessened her need for sleep. When Eva’s latest charity appearance at a children’s hospital goes terribly awry, Maddy is left holding the bag. How long can she cover for Eva, as a disoriented Radiant Pink traverses the galaxy, searching for her final leap, I mean portal, home?

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Yahgz: The Craynobi Tales 1 by Art Baltazar

I adore Art Baltazar’s artwork, with its bright neon colors and cute, expressive characters. Little wonder that his Tiny Titans comics have become a New York Times bestseller, showcasing his excellent interpretations of DC Comics stalwarts.

His original creations lack that household familiarity, but are just as worthy of checking out, especially for young readers wanting an easy but fun read. There’s lots of action and adventure in this first installment of a series created ages ago, brought back now for a new generation.

Craynobi is an adventurous member of the Cray, one of the races that co-exist peacefully on a world filled with mystery and wonder. Their allies are the gentle Yahgeez who live in the title land of Yahgz. Whenever hostilities threaten the Yahgeez’ peaceful nation, they call upon their more action-minded Cray friends to help them repel invaders. Craynobi has become so honored for this by his Yahgeez friends that he’s considered family, earning the moniker “Craypa” as he grows older and entertains Yahgeez children with stories of his adventures.

While his own son Crayski has loved growing up with the Yahgeez, their little unit — including their Cray companion Weez — is eager to travel back to Cray City. Crayski wants not only to see the land of his Cray family but to answer the call of destiny. He has, after all, been prophesied to be a savior and leader of both Cray and Yahgeez origin. When Weez receives a mystical summons informing him of great danger coming to Cray City, our intrepid heroes must pack up and head to a home some of them have never even seen. But not without telling a few stories first, of course.

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Rana Joon And The One And Only Now by Shideh Etaat

It’s been almost a year since Rana’s best friend died, inexplicably going too fast in a car that he typically drove over-cautiously. Louie was smart, sensitive and accepting of Rana’s struggles as a closeted Iranian American Muslim lesbian with a difficult home life. Her dad works back in the Middle East while his family stays safely in the San Fernando Valley, coming to visit his wife and kids for only a month out of every year. Her younger brother Babak gets to do whatever he wants while Rana is told what to wear, what to eat and what to do by her immaculately groomed, perpetually neurotic mother.

In her grief, Rana has quit the basketball team and started joylessly hooking up with Louie’s twin brother Tony. When she learns that a major rap battle that Louie had dreamed of taking part in is coming back to the area, she decides that she’s going to honor his memory by competing. Trouble is, public speaking terrifies her. In fact, the most rapping she’s ever done is while listening to Tupac while hanging out with Louie.

Her other best friend Naz encourages her not only to practice, but to use her own poems instead of just channeling the fragments of Louie’s writing that are in her possession. Rana’s late grandfather had instilled a love of poetry in her, but Rana is too unsure of her own talent to take that step. If she’s going to overcome her fear of speaking up tho, why not take the full leap and expose her deepest feelings to the world?

Complicating matters is her growing bond with Yasaman, a half-Persian schoolmate who adores visual art and is eager to share that love with her. Rana is pretty sure that bubbly, red-headed Yasaman is interested in her romantically, but she’s too caught up in her own head to know what to do about the possibility of her first relationship with another girl. Will Rana be able to honor both her own feelings and the memory of her late best friend as her turbulent high school days draw to a close?

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Eight Billion Genies: Deluxe Edition by Charles Soule & Ryan Browne

collecting the entire 8-issue series.

I knew I was in for something good when I read the name of the creators’ company, Silent E Productions. It’s a joke at once elegant and simple, and sets the perfect tone for this thoughtfully maximalist look at the nightmare question of what would happen if everyone in the world was granted the instant fulfillment of one wish.

Or to be more precise — and as indicated in the title — if each of the 8 billion people on the planet suddenly gained a genie who would grant them one wish. The genies’ handling of these wishes is intent-based and flexible, so someone wishing for world peace wouldn’t find everyone else instantly killed, as the typical cautionary tale goes. Instead this comic explores not only the logistics of wishes but also the most likely outcomes, and a lot of unintended outcomes, too.

The story itself begins in a dive bar, as eight people congregate there for various purposes. Will Williams owns the place, and Brian, Alex and Daisy are members of a rock band about to play a gig there. It’s Robbie’s 12th birthday, and he’s trying to rouse his drunk dad from where dad is slumped on a bar stool. Finally, a young Chinese couple who speak little English stop in looking for directions.

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