Thursday, February 04, 2016

Nicholas Nickleby

by Charles Dickens

also known as...

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby: Containing a Faithful Account of the Fortunes, Misfortunes, Uprisings, Downfallings, and Complete Career of the Nickleby Family

edited by "Boz."
with illustrations by "Phiz."

After reading and loving Bleak House, I had the idea to read a classic every year. I've been thinking about how to inject some diversity into that project, but life is short and I like Dickens. Also, I saw a bit of the 2002 film starring the adorable young Charlie Hunnam (before he got ripped), and I was tickled by his pronunciation of Dotheboys Hall (not the way people usually say Sotheby's, as in the auction house, but more like "do the boys") — not to mention cute little (also pre-ripped) Jamie Bell as the worshipful Smike.

I've also seen the 1977 TV mini-series, and I found the book to be much funnier than either of these two screen adaptations. Don't get me wrong, it's tragedy at every turn for the poor Nicklebys (though everything works out in the end), but the book has a good number of humorous (tragi-comic, if you must) episodes. The jolly John Browdie is always good for a laugh, and the Squeerses are so vile as to border on parody. (Not to say the infamous Yorkshire schools weren't a real social ill being criticized by Dickens.)

Overall, though, this book is not one I'd recommend to someone just getting started with Dickens or early Victorian novels. If you've got a taste for such things, however, you'll find much to enjoy. Some critics have disdained Nicholas Nickleby's obvious good-vs-evil plot and unrefined characterizations, but simplicity has its virtues too. I'd rather have really good strawberry ice cream instead of a so-so maple and fennel or a challenging bone marrow and peppercorn. (You know who you are, Salt & Straw!)


by Nick Sousanis

This comic book (aka sequential art, visual narrative, graphic novel, etc.) is about the power and potential of visual communication techniques to open new perspectives. It aims to be rather intellectual by quoting lots of intellectuals and academics (philosophers, linguists, and semioticians — oh my!) and referring to them usually by last name only. (Because of course everyone knows who Gilles Deleuze is. Do you even deconstruct, bro?)

The author/artist does a great job of combining and manipulating text and image in unexpected and innovative ways that are also useful to understanding, rather than just technically virtuosic or unnecessarily complex. He presents some very interesting ideas but also a lot of "undergraduate" philosophizing and naive opining about how conformity sucks, man. I guess I'm just old, jaded, and stuck in "flattened" ways of thinking and looking, but to me the author's line of reasoning seems to frequently mistake metaphor for reality and/or conflate metaphor (a vehicle for meaning) with actual meaning (the content of metaphor).

I took some notes, and could have taken more, but, in another example of my jadedness, I don't really care enough to go into that kind of detail here. I'll just say that one particular weakness is the author's failure to grasp certain neurobiological realities. He rejects one facile explanation of right- and left-brain difference only to substitute an equally simplistic interpretation that still ignores the fundamental connectedness and interactivity of the two hemispheres. Most appalling, given his Deleuzean leanings, is his overlooking the fact that the human brain is the ultimate self-referential rhizomatic structure! (If you know your Deleuze and Guattari, you'll get the significance or rhizomes.)

Anyway, despite my quibbles, Unflattening is a worthwhile addition to the body of works legitimizing comics (by any name) as not only an art form but a vehicle for information and ideas.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Beautiful and the Damned: a portrait of the new India

by Siddhartha Deb

I'd always meant to read Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, but I never got around to it, and now my library doesn't have it anymore. Jeez, it came out only 10 years ago!

But I did get to read this book, which is pretty decent and not too long. Each chapter looks at a different person or place (if I'm recalling correctly) that highlights a particular aspect of the exuberantly chaotic social landscape of modern India: literally a billion people, some fantastically rich and many desperately poor, a crowded country in a crowded part of the world. Not an exhaustive survey, just some interesting vignettes; a different author would have found different things interesting — no shortage of things to look at or ways of looking at India.

Between You & Me: confessions of a Comma Queen

by Mary Norris

I've been called a "grammar nazi" plenty of times. Language evolves, casual and colloquial is fine for some contexts, let's not get into all that...

This book is not so much a rant about grammar or style, and it's not a catalog of rules or mistakes. While it does delve into some of the finer details of correct* grammar, this book also shares a lot about the author's career at the New Yorker magazine and people she's known over the years — some of which is quite interesting and most of which is at least a little interesting, but these stories can seem boring and unnecessary if you thought you were just going to be reading about grammar.

I felt as if I didn't like the book much immediately after reading it, but I like it more in retrospect. In particular, I'm somewhat enamored of her obsession with pencils and pencil sharpeners, and I enjoyed the discussion of the history of Webster's dictionary/-ies and the various editions.

* Style- and grammar-wise, the New Yorker is mostly very conservative, but it also has those lovely, quirky house-style things, such as the diaeresis in words like reëlection, that are unique to the magazine.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Newton's Apple and Other Myths about Science

edited by Ronald L. Number and Kostas Kampourakis

I think I jumped on this one just from the title. At first I was puzzled that my library only had one copy of it, because popular science books tend to circulate well. I figured out why once I started reading: this book is not about people's incorrect knowledge of science (eg., most people think Schrödinger's cat is 50% alive and 50% dead, when really its status is indeterminate), it's about myths within the history of science and the pedagogy of science as a body of knowledge, a methodology, and/or a way of thinking. So, pretty academic and not so much intended for the lay reader.

Here is a series of quotes from the book that give an idea of how it's written and what it's about:

"What exactly do we mean by 'myths in science'? Often we mean the propagation of stories that are at odds with the historical record -- be it because their protagonists have specific views on how science has (or ought to have) developed or because teachers and textbook writers find them educationally expedient."

"Myths, as the French linguist Roland Barthes (1915-1980) put it in his Mythologies, are not simply inaccurate statements about the world; they are a specific kind of speech. Myths are a way of collectively expressing something about values, beliefs, and aspirations, even though, taken literally, the content of myth is not true."

"Part of the problem reflects a general limitation of all textbooks. Textbook writers, in consideration of space limitations and intended audience, present science as briefly and simply as possible. This systematic omission of details regarding the process of science has the unfortunate consequence of portraying the results of science as certain, rather than tentative and the object of continued investigation."

Even though this book is very different from what I expected, I rather enjoyed it. The academic tone isn't all that bad, the chapters — each one dedicated to a particular myth — are short, and the entire book is of modest length. Good to stretch the brain muscles and feel like a smartypants. I learned new things and deepened my understanding of others.

Into the Unknown: how great explorers found their way by land, sea and air

by Stewart Ross
illustrated by Stephen Biesty

Such an amazing book! Cataloged for kids but so much for adults to enjoy too. Lovely detailed drawings and big fold-out pages about fourteen amazing journeys, from a Greek sailor in 340 BC to the moon landing in 1969, along with explanatory text and informative sidebars. This book would be an excellent gift for that smart kid you know; even if it's beyond their current reading level, they can geek out over the pictures and grow into it. Adults will appreciate this book but probably would want something heftier for their own shelves.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Assholes Finish First

by Tucker Max

I enjoyed the raunchy, obnoxious comedy of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, so I was prepared again to ignore the fundamental — and self-identified — asshole-ism of the author in order to get some laughs at the expense of others. His second outing is, not surprisingly, not as good as the first, though (because?) it covers very similar ground. Call it the sophomore slump, or maybe just the novelty wearing off. To be fair, I did laugh out loud more than once.

I'm not particularly inclined to read his third book, but I still want to see the movie based on the first. And the third book, if I were stuck at the airport and had it to read, I'm sure it would help pass the time with at least a few chuckles.

You Got Nothing Coming: notes from a prison fish

by Jimmy A. Lerner

Let's not try to figure out why I'm so fascinated by life in prison. Let's just agree that this is an interesting book, very gritty and honest and real, and it scratched most of my itch. It's no literary masterpiece, but the writing is fine and appropriately straightforward. This true story is not boring.

And let's not discuss the problems with the American criminal justice system and the correctional industry. Let's just agree that life in prison in the United States is very rough and could stand to be improved a lot without lessening the intended punishment.

Blind Descent: the quest to discover the deepest place on earth

by James M. Tabor

Since it's about going down instead of up, this book could sort of be the opposite of Touching the Void, or one of the other books about climbing Mt. Everest. It's pretty well-written, mostly not boring, and manages to convey the excitement and danger of the expeditions even to someone not involved or particularly interested in spelunking. Solid recommendation if you like travel and adventure, extreme sports, survival stories.

My one complaint is sort of a technicality: if the cave starts up the side of a mountain and the bottom of it is at the level of a valley floor, no matter how far it is from top to bottom, it just doesn't feel as "deep" as something below sea level. I've probably just read Journey to the Center of the Earth too many times.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Single Digits: in praise of small numbers

by Marc Chamberland

Another book that is not what I'd imagined it would be. The intro says that, yes, it gets into some pretty advanced math, but also says that one can gloss over the finer details of the equations without losing the greater sense of the explanations, which are written such that a 12-year-old can understand — to which I call shenanigans! I admit my math is a little rusty, but I'd be surprised if any twelfth-graders would get this stuff.

One particularly annoying thing is the frequent use of "nontrivial" to describe numbers or equations or whatever without ever defining it. I made it through a semester of college-level calculus (barely) without ever encountering that terminology.

So, totally not for beginners, no matter how intriguing the book description sounds. Perhaps someone will write a book about the interesting qualities of numbers that really is for the layperson.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Routes of Man: how roads are changing the world and the way we live today

by Ted Conover

I had such high hopes for this book! Hopes that were neither fulfilled nor fully dashed.

I was disappointed that the book doesn't have more of an overview or history of road building and civilization. Instead, each chapter looks at a particular road (not always what we Americans might imagine) and it's current significance in a globalized/globalizing world. I remember each chapter being interesting in and of itself, along the lines of a longer magazine article, but the book as a whole isn't what I wanted it to be. I think maybe I didn't quite finish, or perhaps did some skimming.

A fine book, though, especially if you like travel writing and have an interest in the developing world.

Call Me Home

by Megan Kruse

I hemmed and hawed on this book for a while after the first review I read. Eventually, I decided the story of a young gay man in the rural Pacific Northwest was enough of a hook for me. Even after I checked it out, though, it took me a while to get around to reading it.

At first, I was stunned and thrilled by the writing, which seemed fresh and tender and emotionally taut. That initial blush of amazement wore off somewhat, but I still give this book great marks overall. It's a tragic story, with domestic violence and desperate choices, wrenching betrayals and hopeful reunions. Point of view alternates among three characters, sometimes unevenly in terms of length. At times I wasn't feeling the sections from the mother's POV, but ultimately her story becomes a convincingly difficult picture of a woman in a destructive relationship.

The young man's storyline is thoroughly explored, but I was never 100% sold. His relationship with a closeted construction foreman seems too good to be true, even while it is clearly doomed, but his emotions and longing are realistic. The third narrator is the younger sister, whose sections are told in first person, lending them more immediacy. She's less fully-drawn and in ways more intriguing, partly but not only by virtue of being young and half-baked.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Let Dai, vols. 1-15

by Won Soo-yeon (원수연)

So, I've written recently that I don't actually read that many graphic novels, but I've recently reviewed three and am now going to review a Korean manhwa series. Playing catch up on things I read long ago is partly to blame, but maybe I read more graphic stuff than I realize.

I read about this series last year in School Library Journal, I think, in an article about popular new manga for teens. (Korean "manhwa," Japanese "manga" — same diff.) My library didn't have it, so I wound up using interlibrary loan for the entire 15 volume series. I felt a little guilty about doing so, because a lot of work goes into getting a book through interlibrary loan, and once or twice I started and finished one of these books on my lunch break and checked it right back in after only having it checked out for an hour. Oh, well. Having read a fair amount of Japanese yaoi, I was interested to see the Korean take. (Boy Princess, also mentioned in the article and also Korean, was a big disappointment.)

The tender and wistful boys-love style covers belie a much darker interior. A sudden and intense attraction between two young men of different backgrounds — a clean-cut mama's boy and a rebellious gang leader — swirls into violence that threatens to destroy their own lives and brings grievous harm to those around them. It's quite tragic, really, and occasionally confusing, but overall it's a difficult story well-told. No really sexy bits, but the young men's tense and tortured relationship is convincingly drawn, and other characters are nicely developed too. Top notch.