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.