Did not get a ton of reading done this week, as the week was really long and draining at my job, though I am in progress on Ann Leckie’s new fantasy novel The Raven Tower, which is so far really good. I’ve also started on the Crepax collection from Fantagraphics (which I will be writing on more in the future).
Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely by Andrew S. Curran (Other Press, 2019)
An intellectual biography of the public intellectual, philosopher, and author Denis Diderot. My primary knowledge of Diderot is having read his smart and funny (anti)novel Jacques the Fatalist a few times (three or four, I forget). Disappointingly, Curran barely talks about Jacques at all, I would have liked to get more insight into its creation and place in Diderot’s oeuvre.
This book dragged at times, offering some interesting insights into Diderot and his times, but it’s primary effect was just making me interested in reading some more the man’s actual works (and also I still really want to watch Jacques Rivette’s film of the Nun with Anna Karina, which I have somehow yet to see (and, looking it up now I see a restored version was just released this year (preview)).
Interesting tidbit, apparently in mid-18th century France there was a prison primarily associated with actors…? Also Diderot, while politically an influence on the French Revolution (though he died beforehand), the main actors disavowed him because of his atheism (unlike some others, Diderot did not have a deathbed conversion or renunciation of his (non) beliefs). He was also a supporter of the American revolution (which did happen during his lifetime), and thus I share this excerpt from Histoire des deux Indes (1780) which he anonymously contributed to:
People of North America: may the example of all those nations that have preceded you, and especially that of your motherland, be your guide. Beware the abundance of gold that brings about the corruption of morals and the scorn of law; beware of an unbalanced distribution of wealth that will produce a small number of opulent citizens and a horde of citizens in poverty…
Towards the end of his life Diderot became a correspondent with Catharine the Great who became his patron. My main touchstone for the empress of Russia is stories about her taste for my favorite style of beer, Russian Imperial Stouts, on which this Paste Magazine article is an interesting read (and I heartily recommend their first two suggestions at the end, I always have some Old Rasputin on hand).
In the Future, We are Dead by Eva Müller (Birdcage Bottom, 2018)
This is a collection of autobiographical essay-stories by the German artist Eva Müller. I think I picked this up based on a review at Your Chicken Enemy (awful name, but they cover a good range of indie comics). The reviewer seems more skeptical of the autobiographical nature of this book than I am.
The volume consists of 9 sections, alternating between a sequence of chronological chapters in grey, blue and red colored pencil and 4 just pencil stories that exist more as a thematic suite. The colored pencil section chronologically trace Muller’s obsession with death from a very early age (when she learns about starving children in Africa via Band Aid and polio via her relatives) through to a contemporary sense of living with death. She uses the “I” pronoun throughout, and the narrative gives me no reason I can see to doubt the work as autobiographical.
The 4 chapters in between, all numbered, read more as short stories collected together that also deal with the subject of death via autobiography. Sometimes the autobiographical element is more of a lead-in to a non-autobio topic (like one story about yoga that discusses monks self-entombing themselves), while others are much more direct. In one chapter she takes the refreshing (in a book otherwise narrated by the I/Muller) to narrate a story, still mostly about herself, from her brother’s point of view. This decision and the actual content of the story work really effectively together. The stories involves their sibling relationship and a distance that grew between them along with a certain (albeit perhaps temporary) reconnection at the end, and by narrating this story subsequently via her brother’s voice it acts as an extension of that closeness and perhaps even as a kind of apologia.
While the colored chapters read as parts of a single narrative (and the color certainly aids in that connection), the black and white chapters read more as interspersed short stories. I can’t help but wonder if this book was originally envisioned as a single work, or if the stories were gathered together as a supplement to the longer story. Throughout there is a dark sense of humor present like when she shows herself being read Germanic bedtime stories that heavily feature death after showing us how she started fearing death and being unable to sleep.
Muller’s art (all in pencil, as I noted) is often flat and appears photo referenced, in a way that is often stiff particularly with the figures and faces, which is not to say I dislike the art. She draws with an excellent sense of how much detail to use to evoke setting and mood, and an attractive use of patterning throughout.
One of the most interesting elements of the book is how Muller uses non-diegetic imagery to convey the story. The panels don’t just show characters and settings, rather they show thoughts and associations and references as independent imagery not directly worked into the story or placed into word balloons. Religious iconography is prevalent, not unexpected in a book about a death by a woman raised Catholic. There is also a really effective use of full page images to punctuate the end of each color chapter, like a last note held onto in a song.
I’ll also note Birdcage Bottom Books is kickstarting some books for 2019 now (it’s already funded) including the next book by Muller, Future Corpse. That title would indicate that the acceptance of death this book ends on in is not as resolved as the happy ending of a novel.
You can preview and purchase the book from the publisher.
- 10 Ways to Look at Ancient Greek Vases from the Getty’s blog is a good quick read. Been learning more about Ancient Greek figure vases lately.
- Matt Seneca on Ruppert & Mulot’s The Perineum Technique, stand-out review from this week.
- Austin English talking with Matthew Thurber, a long read, made me realize I wanted to read Thurber’s Art Comic. (Wow, when I go to Amazon to look it up, the “Sponsored products related to this item” are almost all He-Man and Zelda books… what?)
- If you can get past the god awful design of the blog, Background Check at “Bardiches & Bathhouses” is a good read about player character backgrounds and challenges/opportunities. My players like to make back stories for their characters, and then I feel like I should integrate them into the campaign. But in all three campaigns I’ve run with them I’ve found it hard to actually do that. Some backgrounds provide easier integration as group adventures or goals and others just never come up in a way that I can make into a fun adventure, and I end up feeling like I’m letting the player down. I think one key element is everyone making up backgrounds separate from each other. It might be more useful if the backgrounds were collectively created by the group (kind of like how Beyond the Wall has everyone come from the same village and you create the village at the beginning). For my next campaign I’m working on something that focuses on backgrounds (and a collective background for the group) by making it main arc of the campaign, while trying to be flexible enough to balance between the players choosing background information and me planning it to fit collective interest. We’ll see if/how that works out.
- “One of the great joys of returning to Classic D&D and its variants a few years ago was using tools such as the reaction roll, random encounter tables, and morale rules and feeling much more like I was also playing the game, not simply running a game for other people. Creative interpretation of the results of simple dice rolls is one of the key skills, and prime pleasures, of Old School games mastering.” How To Resolve Everything That Comes Up. I wholeheartedly agree with this, when running a game, I really enjoy the moments when some random unexpected thing comes up with a dice roll and I have to make it work in the current game context.
- Good piece by Joe Bush on Dming
- Sean McCoy on gaming book layouts, some good advice in here.
Me me me:
While a couple posts is not necessarily a full blown revival, I am pleased with myself for keeping this going so far. I took a very long break from blogging, and even longer (still ongoing) break from making artwork (with a few so far aborted attempts, as the unused sumi-e ink materials sitting on my non-computer desk attest). Some of that was just working too much. I’ve been working from home for about 9 years now and it became very easy to work work work without stop until it was time to make dinner, leading to 10 hour days of sitting at my desk in fairly active (mentally speaking) work (I’m a computer programmer, a “full stack developer” if you want to get technical, who has to constantly learn new aspects of my job). That adds up over the years, and it didn’t help with stress levels or leaving me energy to do much else. Work, make dinner, watch tv, read a bit, sleep. In between that drain of energy made it all too easy for me to just play a lot of video games on the weekends (or evenings) as an engaging but not too mentally active past time. But at some point I had to accept that no matter how much I worked, the extra time wasn’t making me more productive and I was never going to “finish” work. There’re always new features, new bugs, new performance improvements, and the more I worked the less focused I got, and the less I managed to get anything else done in my life.
So I’ve been trying really hard to work more normal hours, doing the hours expected of me and calling it a day (which has not as far as I can tell (or anyone has told me) decreased my productivity). Eventually that has lead to me feeling more able to do other activities rather than just firing up the PS4 and playing a game. I’ve also been consciously trying to watch less tv (though also watch more movies), so I can spend more time reading (I never stopped reading a lot, but it has been a lot less than I used to). I think all this is starting to pay off, and one aspect of this is the resumption of this blog to try to just write down the thoughts I have as I’m doing other things (walking usually, as I try to take a lot of walks so I move around a bit during the day).
I think it has also helped to change my conception of the blog. I used to try to make everything very thematically connected, semi-formal, etc. in a way that I am not all that good at, it turns out. Some of it is also probably related to the availability of social media for short, casual text/image/sharing. I’m also working on adjusting my social media (well I have been for awhile now). I deleted my Facebook account months ago (don’t miss it at all); Google+ which I was using solely for role-playing content is shutting down next month (and most everyone has already stopped using it); Tumblr has had a long slow decline for the content I was following (comics); which leaves me Instagram and Twitter. I’m getting back into Twitter a bit after mostly ignoring it for a long time, as a decent number of people I followed on G+ have taken it up again, this time trying to better manage things via their Lists feature (to try to filter the politics from the comics from the d&d). And Instagram, well, in general, Instagram is crap. You can’t even put links in your photo captions! That’s just total Facebook assholery. If it wasn’t the system that so many of my real life friends/family used, I’d probably give up on it.
God laughs at those who plan, but I’m an atheist, so the plan is for Monday posts.