Monday, December 18, 2006

Love, Football, and Other Contact Sports

by Alden R. Carter

A fun series of interconnected stories centering around members of a high school football team and their girlfriends, exes, and admirers. Narrators' voices are convincing, and the variety of protagonists ensures there's something for just about everyone. Nothing really about which to wax poetic, but it's a good, solid young adult book with boy appeal that doesn't take long to read. (It looks thicker than some YA books, but it reads quickly.) You could recommend this book to someone who likes Chris Crutcher, or who's outgrown Matt Christopher.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Letter to a Christian Nation

by Sam Harris

This is the author's follow-up to, and response to critics of, The End of Faith. (See my earlier post for that highly-recommended book.) As such, it'll make a lot more sense if you read the first one first; otherwise, the author's arguments may seem flimsier or less clear than they really are.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has recently written about a phenomenon he calls "irreligious intolerance." He thinks (vocal) atheists are being — gasp! — mean to believers by disrespecting their beliefs. Which begs the question(s): Should we tolerate other irrational beliefs? Would it be considered mean, or is it ultimately an act of kindness and respect to tell an adult that Santa Claus is not real? Are we underestimating the intelligence and/or sanity of the faithful by shielding them, through "tolerance," from a rational critique of their irrational behavior?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (and How We the People Can Correct It)

by Sanford Levinson

You don't have to tell me the Constitution is screwy, but it doesn't hurt to brush up on the details. (And even if you think you know what's wrong with the Constitution, you'll find some new fuel for your fire.)

Probably the most important effed-up thing about our Constitution is voting inequality that results from the electoral college method of electing the president, and from the fact that each state gets two senators regardless of population. (The two are related, in fact.) California, for example, is home to almost 40 million people who share only two votes in the Senate, while Wyoming's two senators represent barely half a million people. That's just the tip of the iceberg, of course, as the effects are quite far-reaching, and sometimes unexpected. (Or should I say unsuspected?)

The author (who's quite fond of the word indefensible) says we should fix our Constitution by convening a constitutional convention to re-write it. While he's very convincing as to what's wrong, he left me about a million miles away from being convinced that a convention is a good idea. I just don't have enough faith in my fellow Americans, and I'm terrified of the things that might become part of a new constitution. (For starters, as a gay person, I really don't feel like putting my civil rights on the table just to open a debate about proportional representation in the legislative branch.) Call me Madisonian, call me Hamiltonian — heck, call me a monarchist — I don't believe the sort of people who are short-sighted enough to shop at Wal-mart will suddenly, with the entire Constitution up for grabs, become far-sighted or reasonable enough to do the right thing.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Fish: a Memoir of a Boy in a Man's Prison

by T. J. Parsell

Man, I tore through this book. It's an absolutely gripping, tense, heartbreaking story that ultimately brought me to tears — which is saying a lot, as I haven't cried more than 10 times since I was a kid.

It would be hard enough to come to terms with being gay as a teen in a working-class Midwest town in the '70s, totally cut off from the emerging gay culture in larger cities. So if you did some stupid shit and got busted by the cops, then did something really stupid and got caught again and wound up in prison at the age of 17, imagine how hard it would be then to come to terms with your homosexuality even while being raped and forced into sexual relationships not of your choosing — relationships that, given the possibilities, become a source of protection and, perversely, of a kind of comfort and a twisted sort of affection.

In recent years, rape as a war crime has gotten more attention in the press. Probably not many people have given much thought, however, to the sexual violence perpetrated against incarcerated men and young men (or women or children in prison or prison-like situations, for that matter). Even sadder, some people might not care if it were pointed out to them; they might say the victims deserve it for doing whatever they did to get into prison in the first place. But it doesn't require a lot of compassion to realize that no one deserves to be raped, ever.

In the epilogue the author reprints a letter he wrote, many years after leaving prison, to a man with whom he'd had an almost healthy relationship while incarcerated, and the letter he received in return from this man, who was now back in prison on a parole violation after being out only a few years. By the time I finished reading these two letters, tears were streaming down my face.

Summary: a great book I'd recommend to just about anyone (not kids, obviously), and one I can see myself reading again someday.

Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor

by Hervé This

This book sounds like such a good idea: short chapters — vignettes, if you will — detailing the physical and chemical processes involved in food preparation and preservation, and the biological and chemical mechanisms of taste and flavor.

There's a problem, however. Upon seeing the chapter title "Hard-boiled Eggs," a reasonable person might expect to find out how to make the perfect hard-boiled (or soft-boiled) egg, right? No such luck. What you do get is information about how the different parts of the egg are made of different proteins that solidify at different temperatures, and therefore a framework of sorts for figuring out on your own by experiment or deduction how to make the perfect hard- or soft-boiled egg. If you're looking for scientifically tested and perfected recipes, you won't find them here. (But you will learn what you need to know to perfect some recipes yourself, which I guess is how it's meant to be.)

About a quarter of the way through, I started skimming, and before I knew it I had skimmed my way right to the end. It's not a bad book. It's really quite interesting, just not what I wanted it to be.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Gender Blender

by Blake Nelson

This recycled plot is almost as old as Jodie Foster. (Actually, it's probably as old as the oldest mythology and folklore, I'm just trying to be funny.)

Anyway, it's more or less Freaky Friday meets Brady Bunch in Hawaii, with a cursed Native American artifact and Tom and Emma — sixth-graders, neighbors, pre-puberty best friends — switching bodies and learning lessons about the other gender. It seemed really derivative to me, but it might not come off that way for Generation Z-ers who aren't up on the classics. Also, there's some almost-local appeal because it takes place in Seattle.

In conclusion, it's almost worth reading just for the scenes when Emma-in-Tom's-body wakes up with morning wood, and when she threatens to pee on older boys who are trying to invade the tree house.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Amazing Life of Birds (the twenty-day puberty journal of Duane Homer Leech)

as discovered by Gary Paulsen

How could I resist a book with the word puberty in the title?

It also has a really well-designed jacket. The inside, however, was a disappointment. Far from being "discovered by" the renowned children's/young adult author, it's all too obviously written by an old man trying — and failing — to write in the voice of a 12-year-old. At least it's short.

This book is cataloged as young adult fiction, probably because of the subject matter, but it could easily be juvenile. (Not in the sense that I'm juvenile for laughing when someone says poop.) Even though I didn't especially care for the writing, this might be a good recommendation for a boy just beginning puberty or a slightly older teen who needs a quick read.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Story of Stone

by N.M. Browne

I had this book checked out from the library for a very long time before I finally read it. Would that I had waited forever! (OK, it wasn't terrible, just not thrilling.)

Thematically, with its archaeology/anthropology, exploration of class and gender issues, and the whole mankind vs. nature thing, it's suggestive of the work of Ursula Le Guin with hints of Princess Mononoke. The writing was decent, but the parallel storylines were uneven to the point that I considered skipping some of the "present day" sections. Other than that, I'm not sure where else the book went wrong. Maybe it's just too derivative; it's kind of a rip off of Enchantress from the Stars. But now I think about it, the flashback parts were pretty awesome — almost as awesome as Ursula — so I'll give it half a thumb up and recommend it for those who are heavily into soft-science sci-fi.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

by Marisha Pessl

Imagine if The Secret History were written by John Irving, and you've got a bit of an idea.

Perhaps a reflection of the book itself, the reviews were all over the place; I wasn't sold on reading it until after the third review I saw. (Plus, when confronted by a young author's first novel that is getting lots of press, there's that feeling, sort of the opposite of Schadenfreude*, best summed up by a quip attributed to Gore Vidal: "Whenever a friend of mine succeeds, a little something in me dies.")

So then the book shows up, and it's HUGE, and there's a waiting list, so I won't be able to renew it. With trepidation, I plunge in — hey, the water's fine! Despite the term-paper-like parenthetical references, which I'd expected to be annoying, it's breezy reading with a compelling story and a protagonist whose appeal somehow outshines her dad obsession and adolescent social ineptitude. (Or maybe I just like her because I'm a nerd too.)

I also had the good (mis)fortune to be a bit under the weather on a rainy weekend, which allowed me to immerse myself in the book, reading for hours at a stretch. I never lost the thread, my attention never wavered, and I managed to get in a pretty good guess at what the ending would be; still, the finale is so twisty, my prescience didn't spoil it. Either way, it was good preparation for the Final Exam, in which the reader is invited to draw conclusions and theorize about what really happened in the book.

*Some claim the opposite of Schadenfreude is mudita, a Buddhist concept of sympathetic joy or pleasure in another's success; but if Schadenfreude is joy in the misfortunes of others, its true opposite is sadness in the good fortunes or success of others, which has been translated variously as Erfolgtraurigkeit, Erfolgstraurigkeit, and Glückschmerz. Anyone else have a word for this?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Hold on Tight: an Insiders Novel

by J. Minter

So this book, the whole series, is ridiculous — and I love it. Five high school guys in Manhattan, all obscenely wealthy and painfully gorgeous, and they have problems too, just like you and me. How adorable is that?

Actually, it's just terrible. Note to the author: If your character wants to find a cause, and you decide his cause is going to be penguins, you might want to do a wee bit of research and find out that penguins do not live in Alaska.

But who cares, right? It only takes a couple of hours to read one of these books, so it's easy to overlook the fact that the author and publisher spent about the same amount of time on it. In fact, the pulp factor is a big part of the appeal. It's trashy. It's hedonistic. It's the world according to teens.

Pass It On, the second book in the series, is better than this one. I haven't read the other four.

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

by Sam Harris

This is the most important book I have ever read. This is a book I am actually going to buy. (I've bought only two or three books since I started working at the library six years ago.) I cannot say enough good things about this book — although reading it was a bit unsettling, and despite the fact that some people will be upset or offended by the book and what I have to say about it.

In a nutshell: religious faith, in addition to being entirely irrational and obviously unjustified, has been and is the source of many bad and scary things in the world (the Inquisition, suicide bombing, &c.); given the technology available today and the current strife among the world's major faiths, religious belief has the potential to destroy the world as we know it and perhaps put an end to mankind altogether. We need to stop constructing our lives around 2,000-year-old fairy tales and stop teaching our children to mimic the same absurdity. We need to agree on a reasoned basis for ethical and harmonious living with one another that does not resort to a fictitious supreme being.

And on and on — much more eloquently, of course. This is all mostly stuff I know already, but it can be an eye-opener when it's laid out in front of you all at once. The biggest lesson I took from The End of Faith is that I am not obliged to "respect" or "tolerate" anyone's ridiculous religious beliefs. (We don't "accept" alternative beliefs about algebra or traffic laws, do we?) In fact, if I have any obligation it is that of a rational person to point out the error of religious belief. (No can do at work, of course, though I wonder if I could get away with saying, "Sure, I can show you where the mythology books are.")

On a completely different topic, the author, Sam Harris, is hot. (And, no, I'm not mixing him up with the eponymous Broadway actor. Check out this photo of the author.)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Jesus and the Shamanic Tradition of Same-Sex Love

by Will Roscoe

This book was stupid. I didn't read the whole thing. Jesus, schmezus. Cool cover, tho.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Book meme

I saw this on someone else's blog and thought I'd give it a try. If you have a blog, you should do it too. That is, after all, the point of a meme.

A book that changed my life:
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason made me realize that I have an ethical obligation to point out to people that their religious faith is foolish and dangerous.

A book I’ve read more than once:
The Swiss Family Robinson, when I was in middle school or thereabouts.

A book I would take with me if I were stuck on a desert island:
The Swiss Family Robinson, so I could figure out how to stay alive.

A book that made me laugh:
Real Ultimate Power: the Official Ninja Book — see my recent blog entry on this book.

A book that I wish I had written:
Lunar Park or Cloud Atlas: a Novel; both are amazingly well-written, imaginative, and deep.

A book that I wish had never been written:
The Bible and all its sources, the Koran, etc.

A book I’ve been meaning to read:
Ah, there are so many; I'll go with Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, by the author of "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint."

I’m currently reading:
Hold on Tight: an Insiders Novel, which is ridiculous teen fluff, but I swear I'm going to read something serious next.

The Wave

by Walter Mosley

At just over 200 pages, this science fiction book could pass for young adult. I'm used to sci fi being longer, and I was worried by the slimness of this volume. Having read it, though, I think this is how sci fi ought to be: vast in scope, but focused like a laser.

I haven't read any of Mosley's other work, so I wasn't sure what to expect. His style is very clean and crisp — except for a few idiosyncratic fillips and phrasings — and indicative of his beginnings as a mystery author.

Zombies and primordial ooze; homeland security goon squads and torture chambers; and a billions-of-years-old cosmic romance are woven together into a fast-paced narrative in which loyalties are tested and long-buried secrets are revealed.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Prince William, Maximilian Minsky, and Me

by Holly-Jane Rahlens

OK, first of all, I don't care how big the print is or how much blank space there is on the page, YA books are not supposed to be 300 pages long! (Unless they're really, really, really, really good.)

This book, sadly, is not. A sweet, nerdy Jewish girl with a crush on Prince William gets pre-bat mitzvah basketball lessons from a hunky 15-year-old punk rocker — should be great, right? Another great concept poorly executed: the protagonist's voice is unconvincing, and the whole things seems forced even while the overall structure is loose and sloppy.

Real Ultimate Power: the Official Ninja Book

by Robert Hamburger

Hi, this book is all about ninjas, REAL NINJAS. This book is awesome. My name is Robert and I can't stop thinking about ninjas. These guys are cool; and by cool, I mean totally sweet.

That kind of says it all, doesn't it? Well, actually, you can go ahead and add some crazy wailing on the guitar, huge boners, hilarious illustrations, a diaper-wearing babysitter, and...hippos. These are just some of the things on the mind of our totally pumped (ADHD) 10-year-old escort into the mysterious — and sweet! — world of ninjas.

In conclusion, this book is so awesomely funny, I almost crapped my pants.

Monday, October 23, 2006

A Spot of Bother

by Mark Haddon

Anna Karenina begins with the immortal line: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Even so, not every book about an unhappy family is unique. At some point, I burned out on Oprah books. I realized that, although the details differed, they were at heart all the same: looking at someone else's pain as a way of avoiding one's own — or validating one's own — or reassuring oneself of the non-pain of one's life. (My fault, really, for expecting something other than emotional voyeurism from a talk-show host; Oprah seems rather dignified, but she's just Springer without the hair pulling and chair throwing.)

When it comes to domestic drama, I've always liked to recommend All Families Are Psychotic, which is actually a very funny book — because, after all, what's funnier than someone else's misery? A Spot of Bother is somewhat in the same vein, made even funnier by being British. All the character's lives are quietly imploding, and I sympathized, but I also laughed out loud about 20 times, including once on an otherwise very quiet bus.

These sort of books aren't for everyone, of course. I think it helps if you're familiar with the use of humor as a defense mechanism and/or if you survived your own unhappy family. (In my family, it's not a holiday until someone cries.)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Man Who Watched Trains Go By

by Georges Simenon

From the author of the Inspector Maigret mysteries (and a lot of other pulp fiction), a serious psychological drama — roman dur, or "hard novel," as the introduction calls it — that's part J.P. Sartre and part Patrick Bateman (of American Psycho), about ideas of freedom and (or, versus) control.

I have a tendency to dismiss mysteries as low-brow entertainment for people who want to seem high-brow by reading but really don't want to have to think very hard about what they're reading — beach books, if you will (which, mind you, have their place). This, on the other hand, this is freakin' literature. Of course, it's not a mystery itself, but I wouldn't have expected a mystery writer capable of this. It might be the literature-in-translation effect, or perhaps it's to do with the era in which it was written (you know, the era when grammar mattered) — whatever it is, this book oozes seriousness, not only in substance but in style as well. I don't mean to say it isn't captivating or isn't a pleasure to read, but it isn't the sort of thing you tear through con brio. Like Nabokov's writing, it's rich and deep, which, depending on your own style, could feel like slogging through mud or luxuriating in a mud bath.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Puritan Ordeal

by Andrew Delbanco

"Reading is rapture (or if it isn't, I put the book down meaning to go on with it later, and escape out the side door)." --William Maxwell (1908-2000)

I didn't finish this book, and, thanks to the above quotation, I did not feel bad about it at all.

I found out about The Puritan Ordeal from a review of another book, and it's idea intrigued me: not just a social or intellectual history, but an emotional history of the white people who colonized North America, how they experienced and reacted to religion, the new landscape, etc. It turned out to be too academic for me, with too-long excerpts from historical texts and diaries, when all I really wanted was the author's conclusions. Of course, apparently unsupported conclusions would not have been quite right either, but the balance was a bit off for my taste.


by Rafe Martin

A year or two ago I really enjoyed the Sevenwaters trilogy by Juliet Marillier, which is based on the fairytale about the six brothers turned into swans and their sister who tries to reverse the spell by weaving shirts for them out of starwort and nettles while not speaking, laughing, or crying until she was done. So I was rather excited when I came across this book about the youngest brother, who becomes human again but still has one wing instead of an arm because his sister couldn't finish the last shirt.

As it turns out, the character in this book is not quite as tortured and mysterious as I had hoped, as I expected from the way he was in the trilogy. At least part of the problem is the loss of complexity inherent in the young-adult formula — and, omigod, is this book formulaic! Disappointing overall, amateurish and clumsy at times, a great concept poorly executed.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


by Clifford Chase

Another book that sounds really stupid if I try to explain what it's about: a teddy bear; animism; parthenogenesis; terrorism and the Patriot Act; the unbearable lightness of being; etc. (Not for nothing, that last reference; as ridiculous as it sounds, Winkie really does have the philosophical depth of a Milan Kundera novel.)

Reading this book reminded me of watching the bootleg video Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, directed by Todd Haynes, in which a remarkably nuanced examination of anorexia, and the life of a woman who literally starved to death in the spotlight of celebrity, is acted out with Barbie and Ken dolls. Rather than making light, the bizarreness actually heightens the poignancy of an already moving story.

The Ruins

by Scott Smith

Holy crap, this book is awesome!

This is the kind of book that keeps you up late at night, waaaay past your bedtime, struggling to stay awake so you can find out what horrible thing is going to happen next. Everything is fine and normal, then something bad happens, then something worse, and worse — and when you think it can't get any worse, of course it does. It makes you wonder what kind of freak could imagine this stuff, let alone write it down.

I got this book after reading a review, but I can't remember what it said that convinced me. One of the back-cover blurbs compares it to Stephen King and Thomas Harris, which would have been a turn-off. (Yes, I read tons of that stuff when I was a teenager.) The plot summary sounds stupid; there isn't much you could say without spoiling the suspense, but a longer description would probably sound even stupider. The premise is very simple (Smith's last book was A Simple Plan) and kind of stupid, yet it works. The jacket is very well-designed, but if I had started there and then read the blurbs and the inside flap copy....

It's hard to explain; you just have to trust me.

You have to trust me, OR ELSE WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!!!!!!!!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Corydon and the Island of the Monsters

by Tobias Druitt

Aw, I hate to give a bad review, but the only reason I finished this book is that it is very short. I kind of had to force myself to read it.

It's about a deformed Greek boy who turns out to have an immortal father, gets driven out of town into the wilderness, where he hooks up with a bunch of mythological creatures, travels to the underworld, and defeats a bunch of idiotic guys who are trying to become heroes by slaying the so-called monsters, who actually show more humanity to Corydon than any of the actual humans in the book — so I thought it would appeal to the eight-grade mythology geek still trapped somewhere inside me, but somehow it didn't. It just came off as sort of dumb, excepting a few clever revisions to the familiar tales of Greek mythology and the fact that the story pits the Chthonic gods against the Olympian gods.

There will be at least two sequels; I will not read them. Maybe someone who's even more into mythology than me (and still in eighth grade) will enjoy them.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Fly on the Wall: how one girl saw everything

by E. Lockhart

I just could not resist the premise of this book: a quirky sophomore feels the ordinary frustration girls have trying to understand boys, so she idly wishes she could be a "fly on the wall" in the boys' locker room, and her wish comes true long enough for an in-depth study of the anatomy and sociology of high school boys.

It's a short book, a very quick read, without heavy drama or lessons (well, a little divorce for seasoning), totally possible to read in one sitting. I loved the protagonist's sense of humor and her butt-rating system, but I could have done without her insistence on calling the other naughty bits "gherkins." Overall, I was a bit shocked by the book's frankness — and I ain't easy to shock — but I wasn't complaining.

Boys Be, second season

by Masahiro Itabashi

This is a great series of vignettes about the love lives of teenage boys. Do I have to say anything else? It's on DVD too.

You don't need to read them in order. Best for older teens: ranges from cute crushes to peeks at panties and all the way to actual nudity.

I've read volumes 1, 4, 8; not sure which DVD I watched.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

It's Kind of a Funny Story

by Ned Vizzini

As a hypochondriac, I have very little sympathy for the symptoms of other people. I find it particularly difficult to empathize with people who suffer from depression, because their complaints sound like things we all go through, to some degree, and I tend to feel as if they're over-reacting and/or being self-indulgent. I know, of course, that's not true, and I want to understand (as much as possible), which perhaps explains the appeal of books about depression.

This book, written immediately after the twenty-something author's own brief stay in the psych ward, chronicles a teen's rapid and (to an outsider) sudden descent from mere depression to suicidal ideation (the technical term for wanting to kill yourself). At first, the descriptions of the kid's thought patterns and mental states (tentacles, cycles, etc.) made me feel as if I were getting somewhere in my quest for greater understanding; ultimately, however, they amounted to nothing more than how's when I was really looking for why's. Why does a negative experience or emotion make one person have a crappy day and make another person seriously consider jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge? For that matter, why can most of us shrug off a crappy day (or even a few) while others fall into a paralyzing depression?

Even though I didn't find what I was seeking (should I be depressed about that?)(sorry, that isn't funny, is it?), I'd say the book was pretty good overall. It's well-written, the pacing is good, the conclusion is hopeful without being sappy or too optimistic. If you don't mind books that leave you feeling a bit drained and/or melancholy, if you want an intense emotional experience, if you liked The Burn Journals, give this book a try.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Cult of Personality: how personality tests are leading us to miseducate our children, mismanage our companies, and misunderstand ourselves

by Annie Murphy Paul

Did you know that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (you know, the test that tells you you're an ENJF or an INFP, etc.) was created by a housewife? A very well-educated housewife, admittedly, but definitely not someone participating in the research-based and peer-reviewed world of academic psychology.

As a matter of fact, as revealed in The Cult of Personality, there's little to no empirical evidence that any personality test is anything other than a parlor trick. Well, OK, that's an exaggeration, but even the ones that seem to have a more scientifically rigorous origin — the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, for example — aren't very good at diagnosing what they were designed to detect, let alone all the other uses they've been given since their creation.

On the other hand, the very well-informed author does a crack job of sympathetically analyzing the enduring appeal of personality tests, to professionals and laypersons alike, even while exposing the careless misuse of personality tests and the flaws of the test creators themselves.

Want to take some personality tests, just for fun? Try, the new name for Emode, a Web site mentioned in the book. (I took a test to see how hip I am, and it told me I'm a bookish go-getter; my movie star double is Benjamin Bratt, which is quite a bit more of a compliment.)

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Lonely Ring Finger

(Only the Ring Finger Knows, vol. 2)

by Satori Kannagi

OK, this is weird. I've seen — and frowned upon — novelizations of movies and television shows. But this is weird: the novelization of manga.

Not only that, but it's also the manga-ization of Victorian romance, complete with the I-love-you-so-much-I-hate-you-because-I-think-you-don't-like-me-but-you-secretly-do plot and the deliciously agonizing frustration of characters who never say what they mean and never understand what the other is implying. But instead of the poor yet intelligent and respectable middle daughter alternately pursuing and being pursued by the grotesquely rich (though still young and handsome) lord of the manor, this is manga, so it's the awkward but cute sophomore boy and the gorgeous most-popular senior boy in a torturous high school romance. How could I resist?

After the thrill of reading Play Boy Blues, and the tamer but still tingly Boys Be series, I was worried I'd be disappointed by the lack of pictures. (There are a few illustrations, but nothing too racy.) My fear was unfounded. Aside from the occasional awkward translation — and the aforementioned deliciously agonizing frustration — reading this book was time well-spent. Intense, romantic, believable: what more could one ask for?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Montmorency and the Assassins

by Eleanor Updale

The third installment in Updale's series about reformed (or is he?) criminal Montmorency is another rip-roaring read. Although it's been quite some time since I read the other two, I'd say this one's better than the second and nearly as good as the first. Assassins is the thickest of the three, but it was so hard to put down I still managed to finish it in only a few days — despite the demands placed on my attention by my mother and my sister in Las Vegas in 100+ degree weather.

Though this story is set 20 years after the original, the interval hasn't slowed our hero. On the other hand, like a well-aged wine, the themes have matured and become even more young adult-y: antique pornography, anarchism and class struggles, murder, murder, murder, workaholism, and a mysterious paternity that strongly implies a generous sexuality on the part of the mother, to name a few.

The book's pace seemed a bit off, with the major crisis happening with only 30 pages left for denouement, yet somehow the author makes it work. And then she goes and throws in a very hurty ending that made me almost cry. I saw it coming, but I didn't want to admit it to myself, and it still hurt.

The other two books in the series are Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman? and Montmorency on the Rocks: Doctor, Aristocrat, Murderer?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Decoding the Universe: how the new science of information is explaining everything in the cosmos, from our brains to black holes

by Charles Seife

The title is a mouthful, and the book is a brainful. Although the author does a great job of "dumbing it down" for the layperson, it's still pretty heady stuff, so don't bother reading this if words such as cosmology, entropy, and quantum send you into paroxysms of frustrated boredom, or if they trigger your fight-or-flight instinct.

Most people (including me) who hear "information science" are going to think about computers, or maybe libraries. Decoding the Universe reveals the origins of info science in the world of telephony (how many phone calls can you fit on one wire?) and its probable future as the fundament of all other sciences. In the process of coming to understand information as a concrete property of matter and energy, you'll also learn a lot about entropy — it's a lot more than what your high school physics teacher told you.

My personal theory of black holes was enriched by the information found in this book.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Gentlemen and Players

by Joanne Harris

I don't normally read thrillers. To be honest, I consider the genre to be rather dumb — unintellectual, formulaic, opiate-of-the-masses type of drivel. The review of this book that I read (from the Powell's review-a-day e-mail service) probably didn't call it a thriller per se, otherwise I probably wouldn't have read it.

What attracted me to Gentlemen and Players was it's setting: an ivy-encrusted, tradition-steeped English boys' school (with the implied aura of homosexual, or at least homoerotic, goings-on). While my hopes in that regard were not entirely borne out, neither were they completely dashed.

Where the book really delivers is in the characterization and, I must admit, the thrilling plot. Oh, I thought I had it all figured out, but the author skillfully drew my attention elsewhere for just long enough to surprise me with a final plot twist that, in retrospect, I should have expected — since I'm so smart, and thriller's are for dummies. Well, this here dummy got a bit of sunburn because I was too engrossed to turn over or go inside even after I'd been good and truly baked.

The Brief History of the Dead

by Kevin Brockmeier

I guess you could call this speculative fiction. Alternating chapters relate the fates of the dead, "living" in an unnamed city for as long as they are remembered by someone alive on earth, and the doom of all as the last living human slowly perishes in the thawing but still cold enough to be deadly Antarctic.

It's a bonbon of a book, entertaining and brief, without a lot of depth. There's sort of a side plot involving mega-corporations run amok as governments crumble, but it isn't developed enough to be integral to the story; it isn't thought-provoking either, because we all already know corporations are evil and lame, right?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Nimrod Flipout

by Etgar Keret

Short stories aren't for everyone, but if you're a fan, this crisp little collection is for you.

I've heard many writers called "master(s) of the genre," but only once before have I encountered a writer (Murray Bail) who can manage in two pages what takes others upwards of thirty. On the one hand, it can be a little frustrating to read such a short short story; after all, one should pause and let it sink in before barreling into the next story. Then again, what greater pleasure than the pure distilled essence of... a moment, a character, a life.

The stories in this collection range from the slightly humorous to the absurd, but, as you might expect from an Israeli writer, there's often a tragic or melancholy thread running through. The mood of this collection is captured perfectly by the cover illustration:

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


by Daniel Handler

This book was a pleasure to read. Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) is a virtuoso of the English language, and he has an imagination to match his verbal talent. The story includes distorted current events, magic realism, interwoven plot lines — but Tom Clancy fans beware: this is not a plot-driven novel!

It's a love story, really, and as such isn't about what so much as how. It's written conceptual art, and it wouldn't have worked if it were written by someone with less flair. The author describes love by example, usually by saying "this is like love" rather than "love is like..."; it reminded me of a lyric by Stephin Merritt: "Love is like a bottle of gin / but a bottle of gin is not like love."

There really isn't much else to say. It's fun, interesting, absorbing, and I laughed out loud at least five times. If you read for pleasure (as opposed to preoccupation), this book is for you.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Closing of the Western Mind: the rise of faith and the fall of reason

by Charles Freeman

Based on what I've written on this blog so far, you might think I only read fluff, with the occasional "serious" novel. Well, it's true that until two years ago I didn't read nonfiction unless I had to — and I haven't had to since I graduated college in 1995. (Am I seriously that old?) After my nonfiction awakening, however, I've gotten so in touch with my inner nerd that I've actually created booklists for people who want to read popular science.

That said, The Closing of the Western Mind is a bit, shall we say, dry. Terribly interesting, of course, but dryer than a day-old scone. I'd only recommend this book if you're fascinated by the early history of the Christian church(es) and/or the fall of the Roman Empire, or if you have insomnia.

I had imagined the book would be a bit more philosophical, or even more science-y. (The brain is the realm of reason, after all, and the intersection of metaphysics and neuroscience is fertile ground these days.) And, to be honest, as an atheist (and recovering Catholic) I had hoped the author would be more critical of the notion of faith.

What the author does instead — and does very well — is to catalog the social and political changes that shaped both the late Roman Empire and the early Christian church; to demonstrate how the disintegration of the former interacted with the consolidation of the latter; and, most importantly, to detail the evolution and enforcement of church doctrine and the consequent creation of the idea of faith: in a nutshell, the elements of doctrine were culled from so many sources, filtered through so many differing interpretations, and subject to so many non-religious influences (Roman politics, barbarian invasions, personal rivalries among bishops, &c.), and were therefore riddled with so many contradictions that at some point someone had to say "Believe it because I said so!"

So, OK, it is a pretty damning history of "faith" after all, if you manage to read the whole book, and as long as you aren't prone to see the invisible hand of god guiding everything all along. I guess next I'll have to read The End of Faith: religion, terror, and the future of reason.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Play Boy Blues, vol. 1

by Shiuko Kano

This book comes with an "Explicit Content: Parental Advisory" warning, and boy did it ever! Graphic sexual content, not to mention gay sex, not to mention prostitution, not to mention incest-in-law (step-brothers) — YEE-HAW!

No way can I describe it any better than this, from the cover of the book:

Selling one's body at Japan's most popular Host Club comes naturally for Junsuke Ake. In fact, he is the club's top performer (and earner!) and is easily the most popular Host with the female clientele. However, his lover, a former Host named Shinobu Hishiya, has forsaken the wild club lifestyle in favor of his new job as a construction worker. Together, they share wild days and passionate nights, making love whenever, wherever, and however they want. But when jealousy and male pride enter the picture, their blissful, sexy relationship may not be able to handle the strain. ... Also includes a sexy bonus feature!

I've finally gotten over my fear of graphic novels. I used to find the images overwhelming, especially when they didn't just go square to square to square the way comic strips do. (Ack! What box do I read next?!) As you can imagine, reading manga was even more challenging, because the illustrators are very creative with the shapes of the panels, but mostly because YOU HAVE TO READ IT BACKWARDS! If you know Japanese or Hebrew, you'll be familiar with the concept, but it can be a bit disorienting for the rest of us. Know what's even more confusing? Trying to read it left to right; it doesn't make any sense.

Actually, it didn't take very long to adapt to reading in the other direction. My complaint that remains is that you have to turn the pages a lot because there's just dialog and sort-of stage directions, so unless you linger over the illustrations (which you might do, depending on what's happening, especially in an erotic book like this one) you turn the page every 30 seconds.

Now I'm hooked, I'm reading more manga and other graphic novels, and I'm distressed by the fact that the library hasn't yet purchased Play Boy Blues 2.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Departure Lounge

by Chad Taylor

What is it about New Zealand? Why so dark and moody? (For that matter, why so many movies about lesbians?) A former co-worker, who lived awhile in N.Z., told me the weather there is remarkably similar to the weather here in western Oregon — which begs the question: why isn't anyone comparing the Chad Taylor to Portland's own master of moody, Chuck Palahniuk? (The cover copy does mention: Raymond Chandler, Anne Rice, Jean-Paul Sartre, Nick Cave, Russell Banks, Paul Auster, and Ross MacDonald — none of which comparisons ring true for me, beyond the basic noirishness.)

I think what's up with the comparisons is that someone wants this book to be a Mystery (as opposed to regular old fiction); the word "mystery" also pops up several times in the blurbs, as does "thriller." While I will cop to the fact that there is a mystery of sorts driving some of the action, it's actually a stale mystery that, however much it haunts and motivates the central characters, never gets solved and doesn't need to — in fact, were the mystery to be solved, this story could not be told.

I'd call it more of a psycho-drama, which of course makes me want to say it's "taut" (because that's what one says about such things), but in fact it's rather languid and murky and decidedly not a thriller. We delve pretty deeply into one character's mind, only to realize we've just scratched the surface: the book's leitmotif is the significance of absence: everyone can see what's there, but what's not there is where it's at.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Girls, Girls, Girls

The Black Book: diary of a teenage stud, vol. 1

by Jonah Black

Since this is only the third entry in my reading journal, you probably haven't caught on yet: I love teen fiction — especially about love — the sexier the better! When I was a teen myself, I used to sneak into my sister's room and secretly borrow her Sweet Valley High books and stay up all night reading them. (I preferred bad girl Jess to goody-goody Elizabeth.) Now that I'm all growed up and work in a library, I have access to a lot more, and I've become particularly fond of teen romantic fiction from the point of view of the boy.

After only a few pages, I was hooked on the Black Book series. The eponymous protagonist slips back and forth between reality and imagination in a way that I found very appealing (and very verisimilitudinous — yes, it's a word), but a colleague who also reads a lot of teen fiction was turned off by it. Mimicking that duality, it's unclear whether "Jonah" is a real teen author or someone's pen name — sort of the book equivalent of a mockumentary. (Artifiction?)

The series begins with and centers around Jonah's mystery-shrouded (and rumor-inspiring) return to Florida from a private boarding school in Pennsylvania. Next comes romantic intrigue, plus a bit of friendly and family drama. It ends after only a few tantalizingly meager clues about the central plot, unstable fixes for a couple of the subplots, and a sucker punch finale that made me yell out loud.

A quick, fun read with a likable narrator/protagonist; I'll definitely read the rest of the series.

Update 08/09/06:
I recently read the second volume, Stop, Don't Stop, and it's awesome! I could have — I wanted to — read it one sitting if I'd had that much time all at once.

Update 12/18/06:
I've finally read all four of the books. The series is good all the way through. Too bad it's over.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Here They Come

by Yannick Murphy

Wow! Thumbs — and big toes — up!

This was one of those books that occasionally arrive on hold for me, and I think, "I put this on hold? When? Why? Must be some reason; suppose I'll read it anyway..." It turned out to be a great read, and it's also one of the most beautifully constructed books I've ever encountered.

First, let me wax poetic about the object itself. It's a smallish book, about an inch shorter than most adult fiction, a size more common in young adult fiction. There's texture: cloth, leather, embossing, satin finish. And the paper! It's practically art paper, it's so thick and smooth — and saddle-stitched! You don't see much saddle stitching these days; most publishers just glue the pages into the spine. Cheers to McSweeney's for this fine piece of work. (BTW, I left it on the coffee table for a few days, and everyone who visited was compelled to pick it up and feel it and look at it. It's just that beautiful.)

Here They Come is not really a plot-driven novel, but very hard to put down nonetheless; it's not so much that you want to know what's going to happen next, you want to know what the narrator will say next. She lives in a garbage-strewn and unheated loft in an industrial building in New York, and her best friend is either an aging, touchy-feely hot dog vendor or a police horse. (You read that right: not the mounted officer, the horse.) Her brother seems to have antisocial personality disorder, her sisters are just plain weird, and her parents are either physically absent or might as well be — and yet somehow it all seems funny, and we're never worried about the well-being of our adolescent narrator.

All in all, shades of Running with Scissors, but definitely not a copycat. Probably a good recommendation for fans of Douglas Coupland, Tom Robbins, and other authors with a sense of the surreality of reality.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

What We Do Is Secret

by Kief Hillsbery

I almost never do this, but I'm not going to finish a book I've started.

Even though I'm a fan of the genre (gay Bildungsroman), and even though one of the author's previous novels (War Boy) has been recommended to me by two friends, I didn't pick this up when I first saw it. The back-cover description didn't catch my interest. I decided to read it when someone else told me it's about Darby Crash, a punk rocker who was afraid to come out of the closet — and I also heard the story's being made into a movie.

Well, however great the story may be, I was only able to force myself through a few chapters. It's narrated in a stream-of-consciousness-cum-free-association style that I found absolutely irritating and impossible. I mean, post modernism is so last millennium, right? (Actually, I enjoy Virginia Woolf, and I've written some free-associative verse, so maybe it was just the combination of the two — or the failure to combine them artfully.)

Anyway, I give up.