Monday, December 15, 2008

Stuck Rubber Baby

by Howard Kruse

A powerful, sad, inspiring story that takes good advantage of the graphic novel format. It's not, the author says, autobiographical or semi-autobiographical, and it's not really "inspired by"... you could say, however, that it's informed by the author's experience as a young, white, closeted gay man in the rural South during the early-ish Civil Rights Movement. The chronicle includes his attempts to stay in the closet and his eventual coming out, and it shows the political and social climate and activism of the time.

I have to register one complaint, though, about the artist's drawing style: everybody has huge chins, of the sort traditionally reserved for rugged, masculine types. Everyone having that same chin is a bit weird, and it makes the women in particular seem more butch than I think they're meant to be. (Not that I think all women should have dainty little chins, but some of them should.) Also, a little variety would be nice, just on general principle.

Oh, and I don't totally get the title — but whatevs. I still almost cried.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Crooked Little Vein

by Warren Ellis

"Reading Crooked Little Vein ... is like being hit by a truck — a dark, perverted truck, that, if it's anything like the one described in the book, is full of blind men humping their seeing-eye dogs before being rear-ended by a Miata full of Latino trannies in clown suits."

This line from the review I received in my e-mail one day was seared indelibly into my brain. (You can read the entire review, which was originally published in Esquire, here.) When my friend and colleague who was working on an "If you like Chuck Palahniuk" reading list asked me for suggestions, it was the very first thing that came to mind.

So it was my friend who read it first, and I read it based on his recommendation. It's bizarre, twisted, surreal, gross... and a darn good book that lampoons American politics and our millennial culture (or what passes for culture). Nice and short too. A lot of teens would probably like it, but I'd only recommend to one that I know fairly well, since it contains some pretty effed-up shit that could upset the parental units.

You can see the recently updated Chuck-alike list here.

In the Company of Crows and Ravens

by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell

This book should be so much better than it is. But it's not. The writing is pretty terrible, bad enough that I didn't actually finish the book. Which is a shame, because I'd recommended it to people. It's dangerous to recommend books one hasn't read yet, but one can't possibly read every book, so sometimes one must. C'est la vie.

I'd heard about how smart corvids are, what with their puzzle-solving and tool use, so I was excited when I saw a copy of this book when it was new. Others already had reserved it, so I had to put my name down on the list and wait my turn. When I eventually got around to reading it, I found the book to contain a wealth of fascinating information that, sadly, is not well-presented. Chapters discuss corvids in human culture and their interrelationships with humans both culturally and ecologically, as well as corvids' own "culture" and social lives. Some of this is rather too esoteric; I think what I had been expecting was a book about how smart and cool and amazing and kinda creepy crows are, with information about experiments that have tested the limits of their intelligence — which is in there, but not straightforwardly.

Another book that seems to be in the same vein came out the same year: Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys of the Avian World, by Candace Sherk Savage. Maybe it's a little better? But it also seems to stress the angle of "Human-animal relationships" (in LCSH parlance), with personal stories and recollections.

Yet a third book, Crows, by Boria Sax, was published in 2003. It has the subject heading "Animals in civilization" and also seems not as science-y as I'd like. Points for the author's name, though. Boria, according to the Italian Wiktionary at least, means conceit or arrogance, and the OED defines sax as, among other things, a small dagger.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Emo Boy, vol. 1: nobody cares about anything, so why don't we all just die?

by Steve Emond

I first read a wee review of this graphic novel in a Library Journal blog, and thought it sounded cool, so I submitted it as a suggestion for purchase, and now my library owns it. I was super-excited to read it.

The great paradox of emo is that you act as if you don't care, but in fact you feel everything with an overwhelming intensity. Emo Boy is shunned by his classmates, who think he's weird, but it doesn't matter because he can't stand them anyway. His repressed emotions periodically explode, with frightening results. (Not truly scary, funny scary.) The character is, appropriately, alternately endearing and irritating. The artwork has some pleasingly unique flairs, and the writing does a good job capturing that nearly universal teen angst — or at least the way that angst seems in retrospect to those who have outgrown it.

I liked it, but I kind of forgot about it. But I just made a hold request for volume 2, which is about the best kind of endorsement there is.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

by Shirley Jackson

A great gothic novella originally published in 1962, three years before the author's death. I'd never heard of it, though I gather it's fairly famous, but I was instantly intrigued when I saw the cover of the 2006 Penguin Books edition:

Having survived the tragic deaths of the rest of their family, two sisters eke out a bleak existence alone in an isolated mansion, mistrusted and despised by residents of the adjacent village. And it just keeps getting creepier. Very well-written, excellent pacing, and a devastating, claustrophobic conclusion.

I give this a strong recommendation, including the teen-friendly endorsement for it's modest length.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Loveholic, vol. 1

by Toko Kawai

Another one — or couple, actually — that I read more than a year ago. This time, a Publisher's Weekly review was just what I needed to refresh my memory for Loveholic. (Bonus: in the process of finding the review, I realized the library has the second volume on order, so I put in a hold request.) I didn't need any help remembering the second one, for reasons that will be clear shortly.

Loveholic is in many ways typical yaoi. As the PW review points out, however, it is of unusually high quality, particularly the depth of character development. A maverick (is it too soon to use the word in earnest?) fashion photographer and a suave ad exec are always butting heads, but their collaborations are all great successes. But of course they're in love with each other! Now I'm re-excited and can't wait to read the next one.

I don't know what's up with the accent and the parentheses, but once I started reading Bónd(z) I really didn't care. And I mean really. The book contains a number of stories, but the main one concerns two male best friends who, after a night of heavy drinking, tumble into bed and get into some heavy petting — with sexy results! Both have girlfriends and some conflicted feelings, but their attraction to one another is undeniable and irresistible. Whereas the sex scenes in Loveholic are R-rated, this one shows it all, including the "money shot" if you know what I mean.

Fatal Faux-Pas
by Samuel C. Gaskin

"A collection of gags, jokes, stories, drawings, and other such nonsense," according to the back cover.

Why you should read this graphic "novel"/comic book:
  1. It's cute, only 5x7 inches.
  2. The longest narrative is just six pages, so there's no time commitment.
  3. Makes fun of King-Cat.
  4. A couple of pictures of weenises.
  5. "Fonzie's Funnies" — speaks for itself, no?
  6. You like Saved by the Bell more than you realize.
  7. The inside pages are all printed in purple ink.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod:

Eighth Grade Bites
Ninth Grade Slays

by Heather Brewer

When I first saw a copy of Eighth Grade Bites in fall of 2007, I thought the cover was awesome. The baggy black hoodie is so totally how teens dress these days, right? I put it on display by the new young adult books and was dismayed that no one checked it out. After a few weeks it went onto the regular shelves, and I forgot about it.

Fast-forward about nine months, and out of nowhere I realize that Twilight by Stephenie Meyer has hundreds of people on the waiting list and is being made into a movie, some of which is being filmed in Oregon. I remember when the book first came out in 2005, and I remember seeing it languishing on the shelf week after week after week. I also remember the sequel, and I remember wondering why we were getting the second book when the first hadn't been checked out even once.

Even once the hoopla started, I didn't want to read Twilight, because I didn't want to wait and because I'm sometimes turned off just by the fact of something being very popular. The upshot, however, is that all the requests for the Meyer books got me thinking again about the Chronicles of Vladimir Tod. I remembered that I'd kind of wanted to read it, and I figured this would be a great time to do so, because it could be a recommendation to give teens for something to read while they're waiting for or after they've finished Twilight.

These books are pretty short, even for YA. The first one especially could be read in one sitting.(Meyer's books are designed to look longer, but I've heard they're not all that long.) While the writing isn't super and there's a noticeable lack of basic editing ("how's so-and-so fairing?"), as well as some continuity failures (creeping down the hall from one room to another, which were previously described as being on different floors), plus some painfully dumb "creative" choices (vampire communities exist in cities such as Cairo, London, Mexico City, and ... the sprawling metropolis of Stokerton?) — all that notwithstanding, I just about loved these books.

The main character is a sweet, likable kid with a crush on a pretty girl and a couple of bullies who pick on him for being goth. The best thing is the new twist on ye olde vampire story that is the centerpiece of the plot: Vlad's dad was a vampire and his mom was mortal (they're both dead), so he was actually born a vampire instead of made into one by being bitten; vampire lore, meanwhile, tells of a such a vampire being born one day, rising to rule over all other vampires and enslave the entire human race. So, as you can imagine, he's got some enemies in the vampire community. And what about the mystery of his parents' death?

Looking forward to the next installment, Tenth Grade Bleeds, in July 2009!

Il Gatto Sul G.

by Tooko Miyagi

This is a two-volume (as far as I know) series from Juné Manga, which publishes some really fantastic boys-love stories, particularly of the romantic and relatively innocent variety. (Such as Only the Ring Finger Knows and Rin!) I read it more than a year ago, so my recollection is a bit hazy, but I'm pretty sure I wasn't that into it. There's this annoying thing where the character would turn (entirely or partially) into a cat as an expression of certain emotions. I don't know how common that is in manga, but I know there's a definite sub-genre, so I suppose some people don't find it irritating the way I do. (How fine is the line between cosplay and furry?) Other than that, it is a fairly typical boys-love set up: young men of slightly different ages, a bit of power imbalance, confused longings and unclear motivations. In this case, the younger character has, or may have, serious psychological problems.

Final judgement? It's worth a shot if you like yaoi manga. Heck, I just requested the second volume so I can give it another chance.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


by Terence Blacker

I don't want to fall behind while catching up, so here's one that I only just finished reading.

It's kind of awful, but I also kind of loved it. The premise is preposterous, and the writing — well, it's hard to tell because the perspective skips from character to character every few paragraphs, which I found intensely irritating and unnecessary. When I read the first 10 or so pages before bed one night, I wasn't sure I'd be able to finish it, that's how bad it seemed. But the next night, I finished the entire book in one sitting, during which I laughed out loud several times and found myself grinning a lot. And I totally swear I only had one beer.

An orphaned American boy moves to live with auntie/uncle/cousin in London; ridiculously, cousin and his friends make American boy dress as a girl for the first week of school. If you can make it past that, you'll get some funny bits. The cross-dressing boy turns out to be pretty cute as a girl, with long blond(e) hair and a small frame. He fancies himself a tough guy, so the way he gets into flipping his hair, swishing his skirt, and wearing a training bra is amusing. The funniest, though, was how this brash and tom-boyish seventh-grader captures the attention of the twelfth-grade lothario. Oh, yeah, and he inherits 2 million dollars, and his long-lost jailbird dad turns up looking to cash in, but sort of turns out to be a decent guy following the impregnation of his new former-stripper wife.

Like I said, ridiculous, but somehow I enjoyed it, the way you can sometimes enjoy a really really really dumb romantic comedy film that you get on Netflix and watch by yourself because you're too embarrassed to admit to anyone that you want to watch it.

The Headmaster Ritual

by Taylor Antrim

How weird is this? In the shower this morning, I was thinking how cathartic it was to finish the zine roundup yesterday and how I was feeling optimistic and into doing this reading journal after months of indifference. Knowing I have a big backlog, I started thinking about what to do when it came time to write about a book I read a while back and didn't really remember or have strong feelings about. The example that came to mind: The Headmaster Ritual.

So, I'm not sure why I wanted to read it in the first place, I think maybe it was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. I also tend to enjoy books with boarding school as the setting. (Spud is a good example.) And since I don't have a strong memory of the book, I have to wonder if it's worth doing any research to remind myself, or if it's worth writing anything about it at all.

I just found the NYTBR article on the interwebs (here), and it's not very illuminating. It's not that positive of a review, so what made me want to read the book?

As I work through my backlog, I suppose I'll get better or find a better way of dealing with this situation if it comes up again. And perhaps I'll catch up and never fall behind again and not have to worry about it ever again. (One can dream...)

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Another zine roundup

So, it's been ages. I'm terribly behind with this reading journal. I haven't even been reading at my accustomed pace, and I've still got a backlog of dozens of books. I've also read a bunch of zines, mostly stuff that's new to the library's collection. Since I'm so far behind, I'm gonna do this quick and dirty, as they say. Sorry for not linking the titles, but gimme a break, will ya?

Prepubescent, by Ms. Zine
Not comprehensive sex ed. for boys, more anecdotal, but an interesting look at a mother-son relationship on the "pre-" side of puberty. Could be read by sons and/or parents or anyone who interacts with that age group. Favorite part: son asks mom why guys like to look at boobs; mom says, I don't know, you're a guy so you tell me why (or ask another guy; and if you really don't know yet, you'll figure it out soon enough).

Frat-bot and Cod and Thingpart Sampler #5 by Joe Sayers
Love this guy's comic strips from the weekly paper. The sampler is a collection of those strips, while the other is a group of longer vignettes featuring the eponymous characters, all with Sayers' trademark twisted humor. My fave of his strips (not in these, but on my friend's refrigerator): little girl begs mom for a pony, mom agrees, little girl cheers; in the final panel, the little girl is holding a knife and fork, crying in front of a piece of meat, and mom says "shut up and finish your pony."

Phase 7, #s 010, 011, 012, by Alec Longstreth
Great mini-comic about the author's development as a comics artist and zinester, so it's doubly meta: a comic about comics and a zine about zines. Which doesn't make it sound as cool as it is. I don't know how else to explain except to say that you'll feel as if you're catching up with a friend you haven't seen in a while.

The Way Things Used to Be and Argyle, by Erica Schreiner
Argyle tells the story of an intense and relatively brief love affair. I never could tell if it's a true story or not; it has the dreamy sort of feel of something not really imagined but more like a gilded remembrance. The Way Things Used to Be is a gripping first-person narrative of family, social, and romantic issues in senior year of high school. I would totally recommend this to teens of any gender, cuz it feels so real.

The Fart Party, by Julia Wertz
Hilarious mini-comic about slacker/hipster angst. Don't remember which ones (1, 4, or 7) I read, but I got giggles from both. She almost moves to Portland (yay!) but goes to Brooklyn instead. (Boo!)

Big Plans, Nos. 1-3, by Aron Nels Steinke
Completely charming mini-comics relating more or less ordinary events in the life of a young man. But just so effing charming! There's no other word. I have a crush on Aron after reading these.

Hey Tim: five letters, by Bob Wenzel
Poop-your-pants funny! Bob has Crohn's disease and sends letters to his son Tim about some of his extreme potty emergencies, Tim illustrates them and puts out a zine. Not for the squeamish, but if the word "poop" makes you giggle, you're gonna love it. (Crohn's disease isn't funny, and we shouldn't laugh at people who have it. But shit happens, and sometimes all you can do is hold on to your sense of humor.)

Somnambulist #10, by Martha Grover
"The Portland Issue" of highly readable short stories by Grover and others. I also read #7, which relates the smoking and quitting stories of an extended family, most of whom have smoked or still do smoke cigarettes. The smoking issue is more free-form, with less writing and more illustrations. Both are worth the time.

Crudbucket #6, by K.T. Crud
So freaking hilarious. It's "the hodgepodge issue," full of random funny stories. (Not sure how it compares to other issues.) If her last name weren't Crud, it'd have to be Sedaris. Definitely in my Top 10 of humorous zines.

Constant Rider #8, by Kate Lopresti
Oftentimes I like it that zines are short, but this is one I wish were longer. I'm kind of a transportation/urban planning geek, but I think these mini-reports about public transportation are interesting enough for any reader. I've also read #7, and soon the library will have the omnibus.

Superman Stories #2, by Mark Russell
Another entry in the Top 10 humorous zines, along with the first installment. In comic books, movies, television shows, you only get the highlights of a character's life. These zines fill in the blanks with things you never knew you wanted to know about Superman's real life.

Monsters #1-2 and Gordon Smalls Goes to Jail: an act of comicide, by Ken Dahl
Unintentionally giving your girlfriend herpes (and realizing how ignorant you both are about STIs) can make you feel like a monster, as explained in this well-written and highly imaginative comics series. Then, to cheer yourself up, read a realistically harsh and yet somehow also funny comic about spending the night in the clink. Eff the pigs, right? But you're better off not effing with them cuz it really sucks to get busted.

Wierd Sea Creatures of the Sea: focus on narwhal and Homobody #1-3, by Rio Safari
The genius of WSCS is that it's partially true, partially made up, and all precious: an illustrated bonbon of infotainment. Can't wait to see more creatures! The Homobody series consists of single panels and mini-comics relating incidents in the life of a young, gay, punk guy. Often sweet and romantic, totally crush-worthy.

Coffeeshop Crushes: tales of love and lust in coffee establishments (anthology)
I wish I had a copy on hand so I could give you this great quote about the peculiar pscyho-sexual appeal of skinny, pale, blank barista boys. A spotty anothology, but the gems in there are worth looking for — just be sure to give yourself permission to skip around and not read every single entry.

SteamPunk Magazine: lifestyle, mad science, theory & fiction (various authors)
If you've never heard of "steampunk," flip through some of these. If you adore old-fashioned "technology," then revel in these. If nothing else, interesting as evidence of a little-known subculture, and every issue has at least one cool DIY project.

Xploited Zine, Issue 002: public restrooms (anthology)
Reviews and related stories about places to go when you have to "go" in San Francisco. You don't have to live there to find it amusing or informative, though it might help.

Avow #22, by Keith Rosson
Intense confessionals (true?) about living and loving and struggling with addictions. Quality writing compensates for sort of depressing subject matter.

Mary Van Note's Experiences (of the sexual variety) vol. 1, by Mary Van Note
As George Michael once sang, "sex is natural, sex is fun...". Sex is also weird, occasionally icky, and frequently hilarious in this collection of bizarre recollections of sexual awakening.

Dancing with Jack Ketch: the life of Jackson Donfaire, notorious pirate, by Josh Shalek
Not a true story, as far as one quick Google can tell, which is shame. All about an escaped slave turned castaway-cook and pirate captain who returns a ship full of slaves to Africa, it would be great if it were true. Hard to put my finger on exactly why, but I found it overall a bit disappointing.

Mishap #21, by Ryan Mishap
Classic perzine out of Eugene, really runs the gamut. I liked reading the book reviews way more than I expected, and the interview with the lead singer of a Scandinavian, Middle-Earth-themed (yes, as in Tolkien) heavy metal band was a hoot.

Standard Deviation #1, by J.V. Whimper
A brilliant little science zine that's just too darn short. A little miscellanea, a touch of Q&A, and lovely wee lab report of sorts. Would love to see more, and longer ones, in the future.

Glossolalia No. 9, by Sarah Contrary
Lyrical and eloquent meditations on what makes New York and Portland special, each in their own ways. Too bad Sarah doesn't live in Portland anymore! Glad we got her to do a Zinesters Talking (2007) while she was still here.

Messenjerk: Lords of the Extreme, by Natalie Yager
Non-stop making fun of bike messenger culture, especially those ridiculous fixies. Funny cuz it's true, and even when it's exaggerated or made up, still funny cuz it's at someone else's expense. Not sure how actual messenjerks feel about it, tho.

Time Is the Problem #1, by Jim Lowe
Didn't finish this one. Too much non-religious spirituality and life-really-has-meaning. My not liking it is more a matter of my constitution and (lack of) beliefs than a function of the zine's quality, which (see previous) I'm not equipped to judge.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Proust and the Squid: the story and science of the reading brain

by Maryanne Wolf

I've read a bunch of other books about brains, so I was really excited to read this book. It turned out to be a little less science-y than I was expecting, and somewhat repetitive in certain sections, but overall it was a worthwhile read. What I took away from the experience is not so much a feeling for the science as an appreciation of the complexity of the reading process and, consequently, how many opportunities there are for failures in learning to read.

The author covers what is known of the history and origin of writing, and therefore reading, including Socrates' arguments against written language. There's also discussion of how readers of different kinds of languages — alphabetic, logographic, syllabic, etc. — utilize different brain structures and can form different kinds of connections among parts of their brains, as well as mention of how eye movements and use of peripheral vision allow the reader continuously to scan ahead and behind instead of focussing letter by letter or word by word. (Although it may feel as if you're only aware of one or a few words at a time, this kind of scanning and awareness is essential for understanding grammar and for selecting meanings and pronunciations of individual words.)

The middle portion of the book talks about the different stages of learning to read: from phonemic awareness in the pre-reader; through sounding out words and understanding how individual sounds are joined together to form words (as well as the correspondence between letters and various sounds); grasping increasingly complex grammatical and narrative structures; all the way to fluent, nearly unconscious reading that allows even higher levels of emotional and intellectual engagement and interpretation.

The section discussing dyslexia and other reading problems, in which the author suggest that non-standard brain functioning that results in reading difficulties might confer other advantages by fostering other ways of thinking and imagining — witness the many geniuses and artists believed or known to have been dyslexic — this section was less interesting to me.

The end of the book just dips into a subject I've been very interested in lately: how is technology and media affecting the way we think and the ways our brains function? Harkening back to Socrates, the author acknowledges that it's all to easy to distrust the future, only to find out the dooms-day predictions were unfounded, but she also makes it clear that we're in a time of increasingly rapid changes to how we produce, store, and consume information, and it would behoove us to conscientiously examine what's worth preserving even as we adapt to the ineluctable transformations.

One thing Socrates warned against regarding written language was the potential for false and unfounded belief in the apparent truthfulness of the printed word, simply because it's printed. Some modern intellectuals see the same danger today in many people's willingness to accept the validity of the first one or two Google results — a danger compounded by the fact that those results are manipulable by site owners, and that Google's customer is the advertiser not the searcher.

Socrates also worried that the ability to record information (and then, presumably, to forget it) would lead to degraded memory and intellectual abilities. To the contrary, the advent of written language opened up new mental terrain, perhaps in part because the brain adaptations required for reading (new connections among brain parts, analytical speed and precision in multiple brain areas, etc.) allowed the thinking brain to make new conjectures and associations. (The simple fact of having recorded knowledge in itself facilitated juxtaposition, interpolation, expansion, and creation of ideas.)

So what happens to our brains now, faced with an exponentially expanding store of knowledge and a technology to access that information that divides attention and replaces self-made inferences and connections with the illusion of endless connectivity, links, and tangents? The effects surely aren't all bad, but there is cause for concern The author and I aren't the only ones thinking about this: check out these articles from NPR and the BBC.

Now, I realize this post is getting pretty long (partly why I gave you the links instead of summarizing myself), but I want to go on a little tirade before I wrap it up. Something I thought about while reading this book is the phenomenon of people who say "I'm a visual learner". Of course, all sorts of input, including audio-visual and experiential, can be valuable ways of learning. I have a nagging sense, however, that "I'm a visual learner" is too often a smoke screen concealing the truth that "I don't read well and my reading comprehension is not what it should be". This bothers me because there's the connected phenomenon of saying it's OK for students not to be able to read well and/or to watch a video as a substitute for reading because they are visual learners. Furthermore, given the multimedia nature of the interwebs, technology and "2.0" boosters have a tendency to glorify visual learning as the future and salvation of learning and teaching. I've actually heard a speaker at a conference suggest it would be better to have a medical procedure from someone who watched a video about how to do it as opposed to someone who read about how to do it in a textbook. I don't know about you, but I'd like to think medical professionals are doing more than one or the other! False analogies aside, I'm a little suspicious of the video-watcher; if they have poor reading comprehension, surely that has implications for their other mental capacities and their capability in general.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Soon I Will Be Invincible

by Austin Grossman

"My first act will be to demand the surrender of all the governments of Earth, via the United Nations Security Council. You have no alternative. Legal details of this process can be found on my web site."

So states Dr. Invincible, the evil supergenius who narrates half of this hilariously entertaining book. The other narrator is Fatale (fuh-tahl, not fay-tal), a half-cyborg woman recently recruited to join a team of superheroes. It sounds frivolous — and so what if it is — but there are quite a few aspects of human nature that can be illuminated by considering what it would mean to be meta-human. (X-men, duh!) The author does a great job of portraying the interior monologues and motivations of both characters, and does a particularly good job of making the reader sympathize with Dr. Invincible. (Or maybe that's just me; after all, I am 74% evil.)

Monday, July 14, 2008

American Nerd: the story of my people

by Benjamin Nugent

While the author makes no pretense of this being a scholarly approach to the history of nerd-dom, it does begin with what seems to be a reasonably comprehensive survey of the origin and early uses of not only the word but the very concept itself. It starts out literary-historical, but when the explication arrives at the recent past it gets a bit bogged down in the minutiae of certain pop culture instances of nerdiness.

The next phase is more philosophical and looks at contemporary cultures of nerditude; I particularly enjoyed the chapter that discusses the way hipsters co-opt aspects of nerd culture.

There's a thread of the author's personal life as a nerd throughout the book, and it continues to grow stronger, eventually forming the central theme of the final third of the book. While the personal stories (the author interviews some of his friends back in his D&D days) are, in a way, less interesting, they're also more poignant and come closest to a critique of the injustice of nerd persecution. It's touched upon in several instances, and any more wouldn't really fit within the scope of this book, but the day-to-day suffering of school-age nerds is a serious problem in contemporary American society.

Good flow, easy and relatively quick to read. Didn't blow my mind, but it was good enough and short enough that it didn't need to do so.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service,
vols. 1-3

by Eiji Otsuka

O - M - G !!!! This is, like, the best manga ever — and it doesn't even have any gay sex in it. (At one point there is, however, a very muscular, very well-hung re-animated corpse of a convicted and executed murderer.)

The series has a great cast of characters — a sexy/nerdy hacker; a Buddhist psychic who hears the voices of the dead; a doll-faced embalmer; a channeler who communicates with an alien via a sock puppet; and a "dowser" who can locate corpses instead of water — who are featured in stories of varying lengths that center around justice for the dead, which could be anything from solving a crime to simply moving the body to an appropriate place. It's sort of a cross between CSI and Buffy.

Another awesome thing is that this series, published by Oregon's own Dark Horse, comes with a guide to the "sound FX and notes", which provides panel-by-panel translations as well as an explanation of the history and (for lack of a better word) theory behind them as it relates to the history of the Japanese language and writing system(s).*

All in all, highly recommended for manga-lovers and the manga-curious, including teens. Exciting, well-told stories, visually entertaining; some nudity, but no sex (so far).

*The explanation pretty much blows out of the water (as predicted) my surmises in a previous post.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


by Karin Lowachee

There are some obvious parallels to Ender's Game, but this is a more mature novel. (My library has it cataloged as young adult, but I just checked two others that both have it as adult.) By the end, the protagonist is still a teenager but nearly post-adolescent; the violence is more gory and visceral; and there's some sexual innuendo — and pretty unsavory innuendo at that (child molestation, prostitution, human trafficking). There's also a much clearer and further psychological journey for the character. (It's been a while, but I remember Ender's Game as being more of a psychological journey for the reader than for the character; at the end of the book, Ender just seemed sort of flabbergasted, or like he had PTSD.)

I don't want to do a plot summary, because that'll make it seem more derivative than it actually is. I mean, on some level it is, but then (almost) all really good sci-fi books share certain story elements and plotting techniques. And this book is really good, potentially classic. (Also, the guy on the cover is hot, and I enjoyed having him in mind while reading the book. Too often the cover illustration ruins one's imagination of the character.)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Helping Me Help Myself

by Beth Lisick

For some reason, I thought this book got a bad review. When I checked the review-a-day on the Powell's website, however, it was a positive review. In any case, I can sort of see why some reviewers may have dissed it — but I totally disagree with them if they did.

When's the last time a book made you laugh out loud? When's the last time a book made you laugh so hard you were in tears and almost peed yourself? The author's sense of humor is not for everyone, but I really connected with her deeply ingrained sarcasm. It's as if she stole my own sense of humor.

In this book about a year-long attempt at self-improvement, the author pulls off an odd combination of cynicism and earnestness. She mocks, even as she makes a good-faith effort to follow the advice of ten self-help gurus. Hilarity ensues, as do some actual life lessons; happily, the lessons do not overwhelm the funniness, since this book is more about the self-help experience than the help itself.

The funniest chapters are "Shape Up and Ship Out," in which the author goes on a truly inspiring Richard Simmons cruise, and "A Place for Everything (Is Not the Basement)," in which the author consults an organization expert and confronts her life-long lack of organization.

My moon is in Virgo, so I was especially tickled by the organization chapter. Favorite quote: "I never thought I could get satisfaction from snapping a lid onto a plastic container that houses Hot Wheels and Hot Wheels only."

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Embracing Love, vol. 3

by Youka Nitta

I don't know if my library ever had volumes 1 and 2, but we sure don't now. (No luck with interlibrary loan either.) Luckily, there's a section that brings the reader up-to-date on the story so far: Iwaki, a former (het) porn actor, and Katou, also an actor, are lovers, a fact with which Katou is perfectly comfortable but which causes Iwaki, and his conservative family, some distress. In classic, if somewhat annoying, yaoi style, Iwaki doesn't consider himself gay because Katou is the only man he could ever love.

Though their relationship is tempestuous, the fighting is part and parcel of the emotional intensity and physical passion that bind them together. There are some hot love-making scenes, and also some advances in terms of emotional intimacy, with Katou supporting Iwaki in a confrontation with his family after the death of his mother, and Iwaki finally letting Katou into his bedroom — and his heart?

With solid storytelling and good sex, this is the best kind of yaoi. I just got volume 4, and ordered 5 and 6, so stay tuned for updates. (I have to read some other stuff first, or else I'm going to get fines.)

The Year of Living Biblically: one man's humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible

by A.J. Jacobs

This book is primarily funny and a teensy bit uplifting, so if you're a religion hater like me, you've been warned.

That said, I do recommend this book. It's got some laugh-out-loud moments and an appealing earnestness throughout. The author, a secular New York Jew, seems genuine in his openness to feeling some kind of spiritual effect by adhering to the rules set forth in both the Old and New Testaments, even while his ingrained skepticism and a lifetime of agnosticism underline the utter absurdity of the majority of those Biblical injunctions. He doesn't dwell much on the scarier aspects of fundamentalism or the history behind competing interpretations and translations, but he manages to include a decent sampling of the types of Biblical literalism found in contemporary Judaism and Christianity.

One last (very minor) warning: the author's style is a lot like magazine writing (he's published other books but also has worked for Esquire for many years), which isn't necessarily a bad thing — it's just that, after 300-plus pages of magazine writing, your brain sort of feels the way your stomach would after a three-day juice fast.

Monday, May 19, 2008

J-Boy 1

by Biblos

This had a brief review on the Library Journal blog In the Bookroom, and based on that I submitted a suggestion for purchase at my library, and then found out from the library's new graphic novels RSS feed that we did purchase it — isn't the interwebs neat?!

I've had it out for a while and finally was forced to read it because some other jerks had made hold requests and I couldn't renew it any longer. Luckily, it was a pretty quick read and interesting enough to keep me up past bedtime for the couple of hours necessary to finish it in one go. (Still had to pay $2.50, darn it all.)

It's an anthology of one-shot and spin-off yaoi stories originally published in a Japanese serial. As with most compilations, some hit and some miss; I'd say the hit-miss ratio is about 70% to 30%. One or two stories were downright confusing, a couple were creepy (child-molester creepy, not spooky creepy), and four of the good ones really stood out. A couple of stories were more on the romantic side, most at least insinuated sex, and a few were very unambiguous about the characters getting down and dirty — but even the most hardcore scenes had the genital areas covered or blurred out. (It's rated for matures audiences 18+ and has a parental advisory for explicit content, one on the front cover and one on the back.)

Before I give you some highlights, I want to mention something that I absolutely adore about manga. In addition to the speech bubbles and the regular narration, they include lots of little side notes. Some are essentially sound effects (like the fight scenes in the '60s Batman TV show), some indicate actions (grab, stare, dash, hug), and some indicate emotions (stunned, blush, thudding heartbeats). Now, I'm kind of making this up, so it might be totally wrong, but I suspect that the prevelance of these annotations has some relation to the fact that Japanese writing is not entirely abstract (the way our strictly phonemic alphabet is) but also has ideogrammatic and symbolic elements to it, which makes the characters and words easier to stylize and incorporate into an illustration; for example, when a person is drawn with lines to indicate motion, characters for a word describing that motion can be drawn in a style that blends with or enhances or even takes the place of the motion lines. It doesn't quite work the same way in English, which is one of the reasons the annotations sometimes seem bizarre in translated manga. (The other reason is that sometimes the translation itself is weird.)

Aaaand, the whole point of the preceding paragraph is to introduce the first highlight, which nearly made me pee my pants laughing: an upset and crying neko samurai with the words "man tears" next to his face. The story, "Neko Samurai - Ocean of Barrier," is one of the best in the book. (A note in the margin explains that tachi is the person who is leading and giving in a sexual relationship, the one taking care of the partner, while neko is the person who is receiving in a sexual relationship, the one being taken care of by the partner. Top and bottom, essentially — I have more to say about gay stereotypes in yaoi a bit later.)

Actually, looking back, "man tears" was in a different story that I can't find now. But the samurai story — about an almost-thirty guy searching for his ideal tachi to whom he will give his virginity — was great, sexy, and a tiny bit raunchy, though less visually explicit than some. Other standouts include:

  • "Indecent Encounter," about a guy with a nipple fetish who seduces his younger brother's classmate; one of the most explicit sex scenes in the book.
  • "The Summer and the Nostalgia," more on the romantic side, although they definitely do it at the end.
  • "Loving Boys Boarding School," where the boys are forbidden contact with girls and turn to each other for sexual release; they also have Native American–style "spiritual" names such as Tongue of the Heavens, Well-hung Babyface, and Public Toilet (because he's "open for public use, mostly for semen excretions").

Bottom line: great book, highly recommended to yaoi fans, and I hope the library gets more volumes.

In closing, however, I want to mention my frustration, not just with gay stereotypes that sometimes show up in yaoi, but even more so with many of the characters' unwillingness to accept their own homosexuality and their simultaneous willingness to accept society's judgement and lack of acceptance of homosexuality. Sure, their uncertainty and the hiding of their desires creates tension that adds to the story, but it would be nice if they eventually got over it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Blind Watchmaker: why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design

by Richard Dawkins

Reading this book was like being the choir that's getting preached to — but it did also deepen and enrich my personal understanding of the Darwinian model. It's been a long time since I read a book by Dawkins (I read most of — okay, okay, some of The Selfish Gene because he was coming to talk to all the nerds in the honors program when I was a college freshperson), and I forgot what a terrible writer he is. It's a shame, because he has some amazing things to say.

I'd only recommend this if you're a science geek like me. If you just want to tell off a creationist (or intelligent design-ist, which is a creationist in a sloppy disguise), there's lots of easier-to-read stuff out there.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


by Chris Crutcher

I was just trying to figure out which other books by C.C. I've read so I could tack them on to this entry. I know I read Athletic Shorts, but I can't figure out which other one. I know it was something to do with sports... Um, yeah, pretty much all his books are. In any case, it didn't make a huge impression, apparently, and neither did the short story collection, although I remember both being perfectly adequate examples of the high-school-athlete-overcomes-obstacle genre.

Anyway. I do remember thinking it was all too obviously an adult (and I don't even mean twenty- or thirty-something) trying to write in the voice of a teenager. But I didn't notice that in this new book, oddly enough. It was a fun, quick read — fun despite the plot revolving around the imminent death of the 18-year-old protagonist from a fast-acting, incurable disease that he hasn't told his family or friends about.

The character has a really engaging voice, and he does all the narrating, so there's no evidence of Crutcher's crotchetiness. There is the occasional odd turn of phrase, but I'd chalk that up to the rural Idaho setting and/or the "things my dad says" phenomenon. For example: "I'd swim through five hundred yards of molten turds to listen to her fart into a paper sack over the telephone" — which actually cracked me up.

And speaking of crack, this football-related quote gave me a different sort of thrill: "Thomas taps the lineman on the hole he's going through, twice on the butt."

The Loss of Sadness

by Allan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakefield

Two researchers are making a case — no coincidence that revisions are underway for a fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — that the diagnostic criteria for Major Depression have led to over-diagnosing and the pathologizing of normal sadness. Long story short: the DSM entry for depression makes an exemption for bereavement but not for other significant life events (romantic betrayal, financial woes, and so on and so forth) that can result in profound sadness, i.e., can cause symptoms that meet the criteria for a diagnosis of depression if the symptoms are taken in isolation and no consideration is given to the context in which they arose, which leads to people being medicated for normal kinds of sadness that would abate with time, ultimately feeding the expectation that no one need ever feel sad and "there ought to be a pill for that."*

Ultimately, I think the book is too in-depth and sometimes too technical for a lay audience. I actually learned everything I wanted to know from this lengthy review.

*See also my review of Happiness: a history.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Take It Off: an Insiders novel

by J. Minter

Basically, this series is like Gossip Girl with more focus on the boy characters — filthy rich, gorgeous Manhattan prep school boys. Mindless, yet irresistible. Decadent, and unsatisfying.

Kind of poorly written, too. In this installment, one of the characters gets stuck in Barcelona and has trouble communicating because he doesn't know a word of Spanish. He does, however, know some Portuguese and French, so he really shouldn't be completely unable to communicate, the way it's portrayed in the book. Fortunately, the books are such fluffy, quick reads that these sort of research and editing (and basic knowledge) failures are easily overlooked.

See my earlier review of Hold on Tight.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

I usually don't do stuff like this, but I like what this says about me.

You Are 74% Evil

You are very evil. And you're too evil to care.
Those who love you probably also fear you. A lot.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


by Robert Olen Butler

The concept is pretty rad: a human head is believed to remain in a state of consciousness for one and a half minutes after decapitation, and a person speaks about 160 words a minute in a heightened state of emotion... so, the author wrote 62 stories, each 240 words long, "capturing the flow of thoughts and feelings that rush through a mind after the head has been severed." (Quotation from the book jacket.)

Some of the best short stories I've ever read have been of the extremely short variety,* but a whole book of micro-stories becomes rather tiresome after, oh, five or six. Plus, stream of consciousness is always dicey to begin with. After the first ten or so, the choice of characters — ranging from a prehistoric man, to Anne Boelyn, to a roasting chicken, and beyond — became more interesting than the stories themselves. Yet, the stories are so brief, you ought to read them all anyway for the occasional flashes of brilliance. (Such as the aspiring court jester whose acrobatic prank goes awry and ends with him falling crotch-to-face upon his master while "already full excited at my joke.")

Another good toilet book, or, if you're not a compulsive in-bed reader, read one or two just before sleepy time.

*There's a possibly apocryphal tale of Ernest Hemingway's answer to the challenge to write a story in just six words: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007

edited by Dave Eggers
introduction by Sufjan Stevens (my future husband)

A lovely anthology of recent writing as judged by a group of San Francisco high schoolers, and Dave Eggers, under the aegis of the 826 Valencia writing program (and pirate supply store!). Runs the gamut from lists to comics to journalism to fiction to memoir... Truly eclectic and all well-done, though some were more to my liking than others purely as a matter of taste and not due to a failure of craft.

My favorites were "Best American Names of Television Programs Taken to Their Logical Conclusions" by Joe O'Neill*; "Ghost Children" by D. Winston Brown; "Selling the General" by Jennifer Egan; "The Big Suck: Notes from the Jarhead Underground" by David J. Morris; and "Literature Unnatured" by Joy Williams.

*An example:
1. Touched by an Angel
2. Contacted by a Lawyer Who Deals with These Sorts of Cases
3. Settled Out of Court with an Angel
4. Blamed All Subsequent Problems in Life on Encounter with the Angel