Monday, December 28, 2009


by Ferenc Karinthy

You know, I look at this blog sometimes and think, What the hell have I been reading? Sure, reading crap that's fun is, well, fun. But then I read something like this, and I remember that the world is full of amazing, high-quality, non-crap literature that also is fun to read. I also need to start reading more Russian and Eastern European stuff, and should read some more books from Europa Editions. I do have some Russian books on my to-read list, and at least one that's on my shelf right now, and I have at least two books published by Europa on my to-blog list. There are lots of new books I want to read, but it's so nice to be occasionally blown away by a "classic"; reading this made me feel the way I felt when I read Confessions of a Mask.

Anyway, Metropole is almost sci-fi, and it's about language, whether it's ever truly possible to communicate and/or to understand another person. The protagonist is trapped in an unfamiliar city, unsure how he came to be there, completely baffled by a language that both sounds and looks like gibberish, even to someone such as himself, a linguist fluent in six or seven languages and conversant with a great many more. Unable to have even a simple verbal exchange or to express himself in pantomime, he cycles through rage, despair, acceptance, determination, fear, loathing, ambition... while trying to escape from this city that seems never to end yet is paradoxically, impossibly crowded with unhelpful and indifferent gabbling swarms of people who, one begins to suspect, may not even be able to understand one another.

Words like Babel, Orwellian and Kafka-esque spring to mind too easily to convey the subtlety with which the author — a Hungarian linguist born in 1921 (the book was first published in 1970, I believe) — explores the essential role of language, both in the life of the individual and in the greater cultural milieu, and the aching human need to speak, to listen, to be heard. And the story also manages to be exciting and suspenseful, a mystery and a puzzle that will draw you in and keep you reading.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Discovery of France: a historical geography from the Revolution to the First World War

by Graham Robb

This fascinating gem sat on my shelf for a very long time. Once I started reading, it was a long haul. It's not the sort of nonfiction that keeps one up reading in bed; rather, it's the kind that, while terribly interesting, will make one nod off on the couch. I still recommend highly, but the reader should be prepared and plan accordingly.

While a good hundred of the 450-odd pages are devoted to end notes, indices and such, the remaining 300 pages are dense enough with type and information to make up for it. On the one hand, The Discovery of France is academic in its level of detail and the amount of research it comprises, but it's not textbook-y or dry in its presentation and style. I was sort of reminded, in fact, of Alain de Botton (The Architecture of Happiness), who's so good at making the mundane into the transcendent (or simply revealing that is has been all along) and whose chapters nibble around the edges of his thesis instead of launching a systematic, hierarchical attack. While Robb isn't quite as lyrical as de Botton, he does have a knack for meaningful anecdotes and telling details. His narrative also meanders, eschewing strict chronology in favor of a thematic arrangement, painting a sort of Cubist collage instead of drafting a rigid outline or graph.

Many profundities lurk beneath the surface of this mostly droll-seeming tale of the formation of the nation of France out of so many thousands of regions, dialects and traditions: one can draw inferences about nationalism and colonialism, economic and linguistic hegemony and exploitation, the fragility of identity and the shifting, shimmering thing called "community." But Robb is just telling a story, largely without judgement or prejudice, leaving the debates and politics to others so inclined. The personal is political — by which is meant everything is political — but it's exhausting to be forever strident, righteous and globally aware. Taking time just to enjoy the scenery, to wander and wonder, is cleansing for the soul.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


by Jose Saramago

While I was reading this book, a friend picked it up and started reading one of the back-cover blurbs that compares it to the Bible in scope, magnitude, depth or some crap like that. Now, it's definitely an allegory, or you could call it a parable, but it's also a lot like a zombie movie, or any post-apocalyptic story. But then, I guess the Bible is sort of a zombie story too, or maybe Jesus was a vampire?

Anyway, it's a good book: gripping, entertaining, thoughtful and meaningful, a meditation on what it means to "see", literally and figuratively, to see when others cannot. Because the blindness is contagious, and the stricken are put in internment camps, the book also explores how people form groups, die or survive, and help or oppose or oppress one another in closed environments with limited resources.

I'm very curious about the movie version now, especially about how it portrays the blindness and how faithful it is to the book.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Catching Fire

by Suzanne Collins

Gaaaaaah!!! This book is sooo good, it almost hurts to read it, but you'll read it really quickly anyway. It hurts even more to tear oneself away or — quelle horreur — to finish it.

This sequel absolutely lives up to the promise of its predecessor, The Hunger Games. The best plot twist comes at the beginning; once you get half to three-quarters through, the ending won't come as a complete surprise, but that just makes the anticipation all the sweeter. Even so, I don't want to give away even one bit of the story.

My only complaint is that the protagonist, Katniss, is acting like a typical 16-year-old. But that's as it needs to be; as in the Harry Potter series, if she actually listened to the few trustworthy adults and stopped being so self-centered, it would be a pretty short story.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


by M. Christian

If I didn't know Alyson Books is a real publisher, I'd've sworn this dreck is an instance of vanity publishing. I only read one chapter, and even that only because I was waiting for laundry or something. I almost stopped after one paragraph. In just a few pages, I found four or five really lame errors — not even typos, as they seem to have run spell-check at least, but those sad sort of writing and grammar errors from which spell-check cannot save you. Eye don't no wear this arthur learned to right, butt this mite bee the wurst book I ever almost red.

I think it's meant to be about body-snatchers or clones or something. Gay ones.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Flotsametrics and the Floating World: how one man's obsession with runaway sneakers and rubber ducks revolutionized ocean science

by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and and Eric Scigliano

This is an OK book, though it drifts a bit and the author has a couple of New-Agey spiritual moments. I would have preferred more science, but it's probably just the right amount of science for non-nerds. I wasn't terribly interested in the author's personal story, but maybe I was just frustrated with the amount of science. Really, to be honest, you could save yourself the trouble and just read this article from Harper's.

Lastly, this book is a tad depressing. The ocean is so full of garbage and microscopic particles of plastic, it's probably too late. We poisoned the earth without paying attention, and it might be irreversible no matter how much attention we pay now. If you're prone to ecological nightmares, read with caution.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Zines the fourth

Wow, been working on this one for a long time. Also have a bunch of books to catch up on, but I don't have any big projects brewing at the moment, so I hope to make some progress in the next two months. Thanks for your patience, and thanks for reading!

Harlot, RN, by Megan Honor
An interesting zine out of D.C. about what it's like being new at being a nurse, and struggling to balance the desire to care deeply and appropriately for patients (and to respect their autonomy and right to refuse care) against the exigencies of the workplace and the health care business model. Also touches on being queer at work, unionization, and race issues in the workplace.

Broken Hipster #2, by Emiko Badillo
Probably should have started with number one, but this volume happened to come across my desk. A well-written and unflinching look at the life of a younger person (twenty- or thirty-something) with kidney disease, the emotional and practical sides both. Looks as if a transplant is on the horizon, so I'll have to check out volume three.

Urinal Gum, vol. 1 & 3
"The stated purpose of this zine is to enhance others' lives through drivel," according to page 3 of the first volume. It's a total hodgepodge of gross and juvenile humor, and I freakin' love it! The edge of every page includes a bonus piece of "trivia." (Lies, all lies!) Check out the website.

Hey, 4-Eyes! #1, edited and published by Robyn Chapman
This is a real piece of work, in a good way. Top-notch quality materials and crafts-person-ship; a little pocket with a folding paper pair of horn-rim "glasses" (hey, they're paper); and interesting, informative, well-written content all about glasses, people who wear glasses, and the people who love people who wear glasses.
On a side note, this issue of Hey 4-Eyes also inclues a short comic by Alec Longstreth that includes one of the most brilliant visual solutions to expressing a complex idea that I've ever seen. To illustrate how a woman at a party is judging him and his glasses (which actually don't have lenses in them), Longstreth drew her with stare lines from her eyes toward himself and, in a thought bubble over her head, a tiny photo of him being inserted into a file marked "nerds." Just had to share that.

Russia, Georgia, and South Ossetia, by Maria Sputnik
Among the best nonfiction zines I've ever read. Informative, insightful, intelligent, a little bit playful, and not suffering from the unfortunately poor grammar that ruins some nonfic zines. And for once I actually feel as if I understand one of those "ethnic conflicts" in a part of the world that seems to have nothing but ethnic conflicts. You, too, can understand 21st century geopolitics!

Syndicate Product, Issue 12.0, May 2007, Year of the Pack Rat, by A.J. Michel
Nice compilation zine with people's stories about hoarding behavior. We all do it at one time or another, so it's nice to hear about other people's inability to throw away childhood toys, for example, or their propensity to pick up and keep all sort of odds and ends. On a completely personal note, I was thrilled that one submission from a guy who lives in Lutherville, Md., makes reference to a store called Two Guys, a sort of local off-brand Kmart or something, from the days before everything merged with everything, that I remember from my childhood.

Really Gay!, by Erinfection
Nevermind the author's name is a little bit icky sounding, this is an interesting zine created as a thesis project examining the role — the success and/or failure, really — of zines in forging a sense of community among otherwise isolated queer folk, and how the very notion of creating community (assuming zines or zinesters could or would do that) is somewhat at odds with the DIY ethos.

Famous Whales, by Erinfection
OK, on this one I totally didn't even think about the author's name. Kind of funny brief stories about famous and infamous whales, such as Shamu, Willy, Keiko... Too short though, could have used some more arcana, or expand the defintion of "whale" to bring in more and different stories, so maybe there'd be something I didn't already know.

How to Be a Good Library Patron; How to Be a Bad Library Patron, compiled by Jerianne Thompson
Like the state of Virginia, this zine is for lovers — of libraries, that is. Library workers especially, and anyone well-acquainted with their local public library, will enjoy this tiny collection of words and micro-comics addressing a variety of desireable and not so desireable behaviors to endear yourself to, or make an enemy of, library staff. Includes contributions from two of my all-time favorite zinesters, Androo Robinson (of Portland) and Kelly Froh (of Seattle).

Reincarnalators : a Sci-fi Homo-erotic Love Story that Bursts the Threshold of Time and Passion, by Taylor Grenfell, et al.
There isn't a lot to say that isn't already in the title, except to add that this heavily illustrated (though slightly different from a mini-comic) zine is freakin' awesome. With prehistoric female sluts reincarnated as gay lovers in Antarctica, how could it not be awesome? Really imaginative story, well written with good pics, all around high quality.

I Still Live: Biography of a Spiritualist, by Annie Murphy
Absolutely, hands-down, no doubt one of the most beautiful zines I've ever seen. Aside from the stunning black-and-white watercolor-ish (?) gorgeousness, it also is an extremely well-researched and fascinating biography of 19th century American spiritualist Achsa Sprague, who not only communicated with the spirit world but also rubbed elbows with some mighty famous people.

Last Legs, by J. Dives
I don't seem to remember much about "The Grandpa Issue" — but I know it was reasonably enjoyable. Two things about "The Diary Issue" impressed me enough that I made notes: there were pictures of Dylan and Brandon from Beverly Hills: 90210, and some of the misspellings, straight out of the author's teenage diary, were hilarious. Both of these are short but very nice.

Doris #25, Questions, by Cindy Crabb
It might not be fair to judge this long-running series by this issue, since it's a compilation of responses to questions submitted by readers during the many years the author has been publishing this much-loved perzine. I'm also working on knowing when to keep my mouth shut, so maybe I'll just say that, if I had to choose one word to describe this zine and its author, that word would be "fraught."

You Ruined Everything, by Greg Means
Created as part of an online "100 Themes" challenge, this sort-of mini-comic doesn't have a single narrative thread. The same two simply but uniquely drawn characters appear in each of the 100 illustrations, however, so there is a sense of continuity and a general drift of character development, as well as an exploration of the characters' intimate relationship with one another. Surprisingly complex, now I think about it, given the format.

Jin & Jam, no. 1, by Hellen Jo
Well-made mini-comic about feisty, funky Korean teens raising hell when their parents no doubt think they should be at school or in church. The story's a bit aimless, but it could go somewhere if the author takes it there. My affection for it is probably colored by my personal affection for a particular feisty, funky Korean I've known for 18 years.

600 Rubles, by Jennifer Manriquez
Cheerleading, drumlines and African American step-dancing have had their movies, their fish-out-of-water/against-the-odds/overcoming-prejudice/star-crossed-lovers tales of redemption, their moments in the spotlight. If anyone ever decides to give the same treatment to the hidden underbelly of high-stakes intercollegiate high-step dance teams, this zine would be a good place to start. The story is tragic, but somehow maintains a sense of humor at the surreality of it all. Who knew there were scholarships on the line, callous coaches and treacherous teammates hidden beneath the veneer of sequins and smiles?

Ochre Ellipse, by Jonas Madden-Connor
I guess I read the first volume. I don't remember that much about the story in this mini-comic, something about a guy who has a crush on a grocery store clerk, and they maybe go on a date, or maybe he just fantasizes or dreams the date? I do remember thinking it was really cool and unusual the way the word bubbles were angled along the same perspective lines as the background objects in the drawing. I'm kinda curious to see where this series is going... there's at least one more volume, maybe more than that.

Rabbit Shadows, by Jason Viola
A very interesting wordless comic that explores what it means to be an artist while critiquing the commercialization and commodification of the art market, in particular the tension between the pressure, on the one hand, to reproduce successful work — to the point that it's no longer successful in the marketplace — and the desire, on the other hand, to grow and develop as an artist. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it.

Destination D.I.Y. #3, by Julie Sabatier
A companion zine to the now defunct (I think) KBOO-FM radio program of the same name. Topics in this issue include home birth, home brewing and alternative funerals, but far and away the best part of this issue is the transcript of an oddly hilarious conversation the host had with the "artist" who chained little plastic horses to the the metal rings embedded in some sidewalk curbs a couple years ago. Podcasts of the show are, I believe, available at

My Date with Sam Adams: A Kiss and Yell Memoir, by Tod
Waited a long time to get a look at this zine, and I was a tad disappointed to learn that "Tod" is actually a female who went on a date with our illustrious mayor when he was quite a bit younger and still pretending to be hetero. Once I read it, though, that didn't matter; it's just a weird funny story, well-told, that happens to involve someone who happens to have become famous. (For the record, I would totally do — I mean, date — Sam in a heartbeat.)

Bicycle Propaganda, by Tom Lechner
Single-panel, wordless, very creative political cartoons in tune with bike-riding advocacy and activism. Maybe some day bikes will outnumber cars, but for the time being I'm still a whimp about biking in the rain and cold.

Dream Date, by Chelsea Martin
This author's zines are hard to get, but you can try ordering from her website. This is basically a list of "dream date" scenarios, but with a very sick and twisted (in a good, funny way) idea of romance. She also has a book, Everything Was Fine Until Whatever, which includes the text of her other zine, the one that made me fall in love with her, called I $ You, which is even sicker and funnier than this one. Absolutely, definitely not for the squeamish or easily-offended, but if you like dead baby jokes, give it a shot.

American Gun Culture Report, Issue #3, Summer 2008, edited by Ross Eliot
Now, for the most part I think guns are scary and bad, at least superficially, and I usually assume people who are really into guns are creepy and possibly crazy. On the other hand, when a friend of mine offered to let me shoot his handgun, I got excited and demanded to shoot at a silhouette of a person instead of a plain old circular target. From what I can tell based on reading one issue, AGCR does a good job of representing and exploring the views of regular people who own guns and have strong feelings about them but aren't Charlton Heston–worshipping 2nd Amendment whackos with Confederate flags on their trucks. And it might behoove you to try to understand these folks, since they could be your neighbors; if not, consider it a glimpse into an under-represented subculture that's very much part of American society.

Now We Are Friends, by Brodie Kelly
A jumbly yet well-rounded travelogue of sorts about the sights, sounds, smells and people encountered on a honeymoon trip to Argentina. Excellent interweaving of words and illustrations. Tiny and wonderful.

The Woodsmen, Winter 2005, by Justin Morrison
I once saw a bumpersticker that said "Earth First — we'll log the other planets later." Regardless of the current state of our forests and the "forest products industry," it's difficult to fathom the thinking of old-timey loggers who didn't think twice about cutting down huge, ancient trees that you'd think would leave most people awestruck. This zine, the result of research at the Oregon Historical Society, asks you to suspend your judgment of their motives or lack of environmental awareness so that you can try to appreciate the dangers they faced, the hardships they endured, and the enormity of their accomplishments (again, withholding value judgments). Hindsight is sort of a cliché, yet we frequently forget that we might not be here if it weren't for the mistakes of the past.

F-Bomb #3, July/August 2009, the Music Issue, edited by Christina Wheeler
Didn't really get into this Tacoma-based anthology, but it does have an interesting article about Youtube-ing that references a documentary about an incestuous clan of hillbillies. Comes with a CD, which is always a nice touch.

Seafood, by Josh Frankel
Another beautiful, evocative, wordless (OK, there is an epilogue) comic from author-illustrator Josh Frankel, this time following a yellowfin tuna in its natural environment and exploring the harsh realities of its very unnatural demise on its way to the supermarket shelf.

Bird Hurdler, various authors
Another nice Free Comics Day anthology from the folks at Tugboat Press/Sparkplug Comic Books/Teenage Dinosaur. My favorite entry is Lisa Eisenberg's story of a cat telling his cat buddies about his amazing Thanksgiving meal of warm turkey giblets.

Monday, September 28, 2009

I'm Not Your Steppin' Stone

by Shiuko Kano

I requested this yaoi manga via interlibrary loan. I didn't know much about it, but it's by the author of one of the best yaoi books I've ever read (and one of the first items I ever reviewed here on this blog), Play Boy Blues. I was a tiny bit disappointed, because it has that problem (maybe it's my problem?) of not always being totally clear about who's saying something. But the unusual plot and the steamy sex scenes more than make up for it!

A handsome (but kind of short) construction worker has a crush on a cute chubby girl, but her tall and brooding younger brother says she won't date an uneducated guy — then offers to tutor the blue-collar beau in exchange for... sex! At first it's just business, but after a while things aren't so simple: Is the "straight" construction worker starting to enjoy being dominated by a virile younger man, or is he still focused on the ultimate goal of getting the girl? Is the awkward but passionate younger brother really attracted to his tutee, or is it more about getting one over on his sister?

I recently bought the sequel/companion book Maybe I'm Your Steppin' Stone on a yaoi shopping spree in Japantown in San Francisco — only to come home and realize I could have gotten it for free at the library! Oh, well, I sure hope it's good. (And, BTW, when the heck will there be a sequel to Play Boy Blues?!)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Death in Spring

by Mercè Rodoreda

The first English translation of a novel by a Catalan author, Death in Spring had me really excited. In addition to the exoticism of Catalonia, the review I read made it sound pleasingly strange: an isolated village where people cling to bizarre customs and rituals without any longer understanding their origins or purposes — perhaps an allegory of the Franco regime's attempt to smother cultural diversity. (See also "Basques" and Picasso's Guernica.)

I haven't done a thorough search, but it's not immediately apparent when this book was written. The author lived from 1908 to 1983, and she published as early as the '30s and then in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. This title, however, was published posthumously, so I'm not really sure where to place it in relation to the historical development of magical realism.

And why, you ask, would I want to do that? The first section of the book is lush and poetic, the wondrous world through the eyes of a young narrator. I fell for the beautiful prose right away, and initially resisted the magical realism label, attributing the fabulousness (as in fables, not bling) to the child's-eye view. (Also, I wanted it to be more than just another Hispanophone-ish iteration of magical realism.) So when the narrator's father slices open a tree, peels back the bark, and allows the tree to swallow him alive, I still thought maybe it's just a kid's imagination. But then, when a village of adults not only believes this tale without hesitation but also re-opens the tree so they can pour rose-colored cement into the man's mouth to prevent his soul from escaping, I pretty much had to admit there's some magical realism going on.

As the book progresses through its four sections, the story becomes increasingly bleak and surreal, and eventually all but inscrutable. Ultimately, it's a story about death, about dying inside and still living, the killing of desire, the desire to be free from desire, the simple brutality of existence, of other people, of "saving" other people by killing their desires, the death of individuality, the death of hope.

When I'd only read the first section, I enthusiastically recommended the book to several people, but now I kinda wish I hadn't. I don't see it appealing to the ordinary recreational reader, but maybe if you're especially interested in the region or the genre, or if you extract a twisted pleasure from existentialist agitation.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


by Joe Dunthorne

I was going to start this post by listing all the other great books about teenage boys that I've read, but instead here's a link to all the ones on this blog labelled "boys".

A more precise comparison could be made to Black Swan Green or Vernon God Little, both of which, like Submarine, are not cataloged as young adult fiction at my library. In terms of books marketed to young adults, the color and charm of the protagonist's voice bring to mind The Black Book and Spud. It also made me think of a book I haven't written up yet, Hard Cash (first in a trilogy by Kate Cann, which got me totally turned on to British YA books).

Anyway... this is one of those books that makes you totally fall for the narrator, to the point where you don't know if you actually want to be him or just want to date him and/or be his best friend. (I sometimes feel as if I want to eat them, or hug them so tightly their bodies become fused with mine — but that's a different, troublesome, and probably Freudian story.) In Submarine, Oliver falls sort-of in love, loses his virginity, sort of saves his parents' marriage, probably learns some lessons, and basically just lives the tumultuous life of a precocious Welsh 15-year-old boy, and is utterly charming and funny about it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Last Unicorn: the lost version

by Peter S. Beagle

I've never read the book, but I have very fond memories of the animated movie The Last Unicorn. I saw it at an age when I loved — and I mean LOVED — unicorns. I was also starting to get an inkling that boys aren't supposed to like unicorns, a feeling exacerbated by the obvious femininity of this particular unicorn, but that extra frisson of guilt and shame only made me love the movie all the more.

So, imagine the jolt of electricity that shot up my spine when I saw this book, with the unicorn on the cover all black and gothic and macho looking! This "lost version" is just a fragment, a false start when the author originated the idea, and it's very different to the way the story ultimately turned out. There's a much clearer unicorn/nature vs. man/modernity dichotomy, which I don't remember from the movie, which seemed from the humans' clothing to be sort of medieval. It's good, and I enjoyed reading it, but I also see what the author means in the afterword when he says this version probably wouldn't have worked out in the long run. It's still worth reading, though, especially if you are or were into unicorns, or if you're a big fantasy geek.

Also, BTW, the unicorn is still a girl. I've recently assuaged my disappointment by purchasing a copy of Machoponi: A Prance with Death. I'll let you know how that works out....

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cooking with Surplus -n- Excess

by Sy Loady

I'm giving this zine it's own review because already in my head it's too long for a little blurb in a group review of zines, like I usually do.

Compiled here are tips on Dumpster diving and other ways of getting free food, including judging the edibility of found food, as well as cleaning and storing; instructions for making hobo stoves and other cooking setups and methods; ways to deal with large quantities of foods, how to make use of unusual food items, and what to do with food that needs to be consumed right away. You'll also find pages on worm bins, food poisoning, and government surplus foods. In this respect, the zine seems to take the Food Not Bombs-types and squatters and such as its audience.

The section that jazzed me the most, however, has a much broader appeal and is in fact the bulk of the zine. I enjoy cooking and tend to do it freestyle rather than strictly following recipes. I also consider myself an adventurous eater; I like vegetables and I'm not afraid of "weird" ones. But sometimes I find myself in the produce section at a loss for what to do with the stuff, especially since I'm probably trying to buy different things that are in season and/or local-ish instead of the usual suspects that you can get trucked up from the tropics year-round. The big middle section of this zine lists foods alphabetically and give ideas and inspiration on how to use them — best ways to cook them and other things they taste good with — rather than exact recipes, thus solving my quandary without stifling my creativity!

Last thing I want to mention is a very interesting short essay in here that could be construed as anti-vegan, BUT it really doesn't say no one should be vegan, it simply brings up some of the unfortunate things (such as cultural insensitivity and moral superiority) that sometimes coincide with veganism. I think it's quite brave of the author to raise these issues in this context, and I hope that people who read this essay really read it and really think about it instead of just blasting it as anti-vegan propaganda.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Dear American Airlines

by Jonathan Miles

About 180 pages, this is a great short book. About a month ago, I recommended it to a library patron looking for a good book. At the time, I hadn't actually read it yet, and I explained that my recommendation was based on the endorsement of another library staffer and the fact that I wanted to read it. I'm so glad it didn't turn out to be a dud, and I'll definitely recommend it in the future. It's maybe not Top-10-of-all-time material, but it's easily among the best I've read in the last year or two.

Stranded at O'Hare, due to cancellation of his connecting flight, our hero starts to write an irate letter demanding a refund. While this sets him up as a sort of anti-corporate John Q. Consumer, the letter quickly becomes very personal, heavy with the emotional freight of why he is traveling, weighed down by the baggage of many failed relationships. It's not about the money, as they say; neither is it about the flight or the airline or the airport, all of which are metaphors for this man's life trajectory. Although "life is a journey" is arguably one of the oldest and most basic metaphors known to humanity, this framing of it is fresh and modern.

While reading, I was put in mind of Mrs. Dalloway and the way Woolf and other writers have a knack for stretching a day or a few hours into an entire book while at the same time, by opening a window into the interior life of a character, condensing a whole life into a day or a few hours. In Dear AA, as the protagonist's stranding persists, the letter grows in length and approximates a slightly more organized, though still rambling plenty far afield, version of stream of consciousness.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sound of My Voice, vol. 1

by Youka Nitta

I had this book on my shelf for a while and finally had to read it, kind of quickly, when it suddenly wouldn't renew and I started getting fines. When I realized it's by the same author as Embracing Love, I got excited. Ah, but too soon. Although conceptually similar, the storytelling here is weak and at times unclear, and the sexy bit seems tacked on as an afterthought and doesn't convey the real-feeling passion of the other series. A good idea poorly executed.

Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List

by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Rachel and David are the writing duo behind Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, now a major motion picture. A friend recently recommended the movie to me, since I heart one of the actors and I have soft spot for romantic comedies, but I'd always planned on reading Naomi and Ely because of the gay angle: Ely is Naomi's GBF (gay best friend) and vice versa, since they were in, like, kindergarten.

Well, in typical gay-YA fashion, romantic problems ensue, despite the no-kiss list that's meant to keep them out of exactly this situation. I don't know, overall it was kinda crap. Ely is not a complete cad, but he does pull the typical gay-guy "hooking up is more important than any friend" bullshit. Naomi, meanwhile, I found completely unsympathetic — both in the sense that I didn't like her at all, and also in the sense that she's completely narcissistic and in fact probably has borderline personality disorder. The book isn't a complete disaster, I suppose, but I did find myself grateful for its brevity.

One interesting side note, the characters are college sophomores rather than high schoolers.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The London Scene: six essays on London life

by Virginia Woolf

Oh, how I love Virginia Woolf! Her command of the language, her intimacy with the mind and soul, her sense of the infinite and awareness of the minute. If you like Woolf, you'll enjoy this book; only you might be disappointed by its brevity. If, like me, you're an Anglophile, you'll treasure this book and want to have it forever.

Knowing of her somewhat tortured (and also privileged) personal life, it's a bit odd to imagine her writing a series of essays for the British edition of Good Housekeeping magazine. To compensate, I'd like to imagine the magazine then didn't have so many articles about fad diets and recipes for Velveeta pie, but it was in fact a time when many people worshiped the newfangled and it seemed as if science and commerce might solve all the problems of living; yet I need to believe that it was a time when newness still felt new, when the idea of newness hadn't permeated the culture to the point of meaninglessness.

Anyway, this slim volume is a pleasure, both mental and tactile, to read. (I had only to read a few pages to overcome my disappointment at the uncut page edges.) Who better than Virginia Woolf to capture the essence, the texture of a place, a moment, a life in a dozen small pages?

PS, skip the introduction, it's totally unnecessary.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Traffic: why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)

by Tom Vanderbilt

The whole time I was reading this book, I was imagining an author who looks like Ralph Nader: older, suited, unattractive but noticeably intelligent. Just before turning it in, I flipped to the back cover flap, and — hello! Pretty darn foxy.

Anyway, it's a good book. Not quite gripping, but interesting and easy to read. The author occasionally flirts with getting bogged down in numbers, but pulls back at the last instant. Like foreplay, or the opposite maybe.

The book delves into the biology and psychology of driving humans. For example, has it ever occurred to you that millions of years of evolution have given us brains and eyes designed for movement and social interaction over short distances and very low speeds? In less than a hundred years, we've invented technology that puts us in situations way beyond anything for which our biology has prepared us. Plus there's the psychology that makes us tend to obey some laws and not others, which varies by culture and economics.

It also gives a good picture of the physics of traffic and congestion, and why human attempts to explain or control or avoid same are sometimes dead wrong, and why some solutions work while others don't. Not to mention the risk management side of things, in which we are often mistaken in our assessments of danger, frequently afraid of the wrong things, and pretty much playing roulette most of the time anyway.

I'd like to say I've learned something or changed my driving behavior as a result of reading this book, but that would be an overstatement. I certainly have an expanded awareness of the pertinent issues, but we're all at the mercy of road design and, worst of all, other drivers. Just because I now know whether it's theoretically better to merge early or late when one of the lanes is ending (its depends on the level of congestion, FYI), doesn't necessarily mean I'll make the right choice, because in fact (as opposed to theory) what's best for the individual isn't always what's best for the aggregate, and either way the correctness of my choice is modified and mitigated by the simultaneous choices of everyone else on the road.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Lonely Empress: a biography of Elizabeth of Austria

by Joan Haslip

The disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire up through World War I is a long, bizarre, twisted, sordid, unbelievably complex saga about which I wish I knew more. This book has the pre-WWI Austro-Hungarian Empire and the volatile ethno-political morass that was Europe as a shimmering backdrop, but except for a few important names and the general tenor of relations among the grossly intermarried aristocratic families, it didn't teach me much.

But that's totally OK. I knew from reading a review that this book is light on the history and very tightly focused on the personal life and personality of Elizabeth Hapsburg (née Wittelsbach), fascinating and complex all unto herself. It's written in an almost gossipy tone, and it's practically a real life fin de siècle romance novel. It really is quite exciting and fun to read, even though it could be (falsely) accused of being insubstantial. Honestly, I kept waiting for the story to start to drag, or become repetitive or stupid, somewhere in the 440 pages, but it didn't. It helps that each chapter is only 10 to 15 pages, so the reader has a say in the pace of reading, but ultimately it's all down to the enigmatic character's ability to hold one's attention. Her Majesty still has the power to enchant.

Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture

At 20.8 x 16.3 x 3.7 inches and a whopping 16.3 lbs., this is surely the biggest book I've ever read. Not that I read everything. I did look at all the pictures, but some of the buildings were kinda boring, so I didn't read about them. And one can read only so many of those highly stylized descriptions of architecture before beginning to feel a bit batty. (I really feel sorry for the people who have to write them; how many synonyms for façade do you know?)

Some of the buildings were crazy-cool, some were meh,— particularly toward the end of the thousand pages, when the novelty of a cantilevered rectangle had worn off. Some of the buildings made me think, "You know, just because you can, doesn't mean you have to." In a few cases, I found myself really wanting more or different photos to get a better overall picture of a particular building, but for the most part each structure got half a page and three or four images. At one point, I started hatching a plan for a worldwide tour of amazing buildings. (I am accepting donated airlines miles; my preference is for Delta SkyMiles.)

I have a serious boner for architecture, and I got bored after a while, so I'd only recommend this book to a hardcore enthusiast.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bretz's Flood: the remarkable story of a rebel geologist and the world's greatest flood

by John Soennichsen

Just in case you haven't yet realized what a nerd I am, here's a fascinating book about geology! And not just about geology, but about the personal story of a geologist who made a major discovery in the eastern Washington scablands — but no one believed him, so he had to defend his theory alone for many years before his findings finally were accepted by his peers.

I don't know how to explain it, but this is a really good book: enjoyable, informative, even poignant. If you scoff at the very idea that a book about rocks-dorks could ever be a good read, nothing I say will convince you. If, on the other hand, you know me or have read enough of my blog to have a sense of me as a critic, you'll just have to believe me.

Really, though, this book is written in a way that makes it accessible and interesting to anyone who's ever looked out the car window on I-90 (or any number of highways) and thought, "damn, that's a cool-looking mountain/canyon/coulee/alluvial fan/butte/glacier/etc." If you've ever taken an intro to geology (aka "rocks for jocks") class in college, or if you've seen the megafloods special on Discovery Channel, you might already know a thing or two about ginormous Lake Missoula and you might find this book even more enjoyable. I also think this would a fun book to read on a road trip up through the Spokane area (on the way to Montana or Yellowstone or something).

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Waste and Want: a social history of trash

by Susan Strasser

What... an amazing book. (That's my Chelsea Handler impression, which I realize doesn't work so well in print. How about a Chandler Bing: could this book be any better?)

Seriously, though, this book is great. I suspect there's a fair amount of cross-over from her other two books, which are on somewhat related topics. There's even a bit of repetitiveness from chapter to chapter in this book, but somehow it doesn't detract from the reading experience, probably because the level of detail allows the author to present information that is superficially the same in a different light in other chapters. The sharp focus also justifies the book's occidental bias (pretty much exclusively U.S., in fact, with some comparisons to Europe), and even explains why this history begins in the 1800s and starts to peter out post WWII — as much as it requires written records of what people did with their garbage, this type of sociology requires a sufficient distance and objectivity, so more recent cultural trends can only be painted in broad strokes.

So much fascinating info is on display here, I hardly know where to begin... with a focus on individuals' and society's (including business and government) relationship to the objects they choose to save, repair, reuse, recycle, discard, etc., the book covers everything from kitchen "waste" and leftovers to clothing and paper, metal and rubber to bones and bodily functions, always explaining how historical events, socio-economic changes, and industrial innovations have altered the trash-scape.

Highly recommended to nonfiction lovers and people into extreme D.I.Y. (That is, people who make their own clothes out of cut-up old clothes or build furniture from found wood and scraps, as opposed to people who can put together Ikea stuff or make things according to published instructions.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lost Boys

by Kaname Itsuki

This book is from one of my favorite yaoi publishers, but it's a bit of a disappointment. (Having a lot of those lately!) It has a promising premise — Air (basically Peter Pan by another name) kidnaps a young man and takes him to Neverland to be a father to the Lost Boys; turns out the kidnapee is an orphan of sorts himself, with a deceased mother and an estranged father; Air's innocence is seductive and reminds him of his own lost childhood — but the romantic and sexual tension typical of good yaoi never really develops.

Final analysis: not so good, but the ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel, and I'd be willing to give it a chance.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Proust Was a Neuroscientist

by Jonah Lehrer

I actually took notes while reading this book, about all the things that were annoying me in it. I think, in retrospect, that I was cranky for unrelated reasons, and I've since decided not to waste so much effort on what will essentially be a negative review, so I'm ditching my notes.

Anyway, in the introduction the author mentions Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist who wrote the absolutely brilliant book Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. Lehrer then basically takes Damsio's idea (of drawing parallels between current discoveries in neurophysiology/neuropsychology and the work of a 17th century philosopher), steals it and waters it down, and tries to apply it to an array of other non-scientists, such as Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Paul Cezanne, Walt Whitman.

I really wanted to like this book, but I think the author's stretching a bit. He also has this annoying habit (and I realize I'm picking nits) of saying that s0-and-so "discovered" such-and-such neurological fact, rather than saying the writer or artist intuited or intimated or expressed something about the brain that we now know to be true. No matter how well an artist's work synchs up with what we know about how the brain works, it really comes down to us and our hindsight; even a writer as scientifically inclined as George Eliot wasn't consciously contemplating neuroscience in the way we understand it today. (A philosopher, such as Spinoza, is another matter entirely; philosophers, in pondering the phenomenology of human mental and emotional states, really are studying neuroscience in a non-biological fashion.)

It's not a terrible book. I might even have liked it if I hadn't already read so much about neuroscience and philosophy.

American Virgin 2, Going Down

by Steven T. Seagle

I checked this out on advice of a co-worker who said, hey, this looks interesting. It's a comic book, which I like, and it appeared to be about an attractive young guy exploring the steamy/seamy (under)world of gay sex, also good. But I should have paid more attention to the title. Turns out the guy's a christian virgin who reluctantly pretends to be gay in order to get information about the person who murdered his fiancée. I'm not really sure who would like this. The plot's well-constructed enough, but there's a lesbian sister and ex-pornstar stepdad, sexual situations and a pretty much evil mother, so I don't really see it appealing to actual christian virgin types, while the protagonist is too smugly and/or earnestly christian to be appealing to anyone else.

The Wordy Shipmates

by Sarah Vowell

A more serious turn for the usually hilarious This American Life contributor, but apparently she's more than just a joker. In addition to hearing Vowell on the radio, I'd previously read her book Assassination Vacation, a Sedaris-like collection of humorous personal essays with a travelogue theme and a streak of seriousness. (Even after a hundred and seventy years, you can't really joke about the Trail of Tears.) Like that one, this book is shelved in the American history section, and it has a photo of a less-than-museum-quality Pilgrim diorama on the cover, so I figured it'd be about the same: funny stuff with a historical theme.

Although she hasn't completely muzzled her wit, this is a much more serious book dealing with primary sources (the written words of the titular wordy shipmates, early colonists in New England) and examining the disconnect between real, historically accurate Puritan ideals and current notions of the origins and meaning of American freedom and power, destiny and morality (including the post-9/11 beribboned-pickup-truck-and-lawn-sign creed of American exceptionalism that asserts our right and obligation to rule the world through economic and military warfare). Sounds like it could be pretty boring, right? But the author's obvious passion for and command of the material, as well as her engaging writing, make this a compelling and informative yet easy to read book.

This is the book I'd been expecting when, several years ago, I read The Puritan Ordeal.

Emotional Design: why we love (or hate) everyday things

by Donald A. Norman

As a self-professed design geek, I had high hopes for this book. Sadly, I was disappointed. The writing isn't great, the ideas seem over-simplified, and the many generalizations aren't given enough supporting evidence or details. The basic concept behind the book is pretty well summed up in the title, and in some ways it's similar to The Architecture of Happiness — an unfortunate comparison, since the latter is so much more lyrical and moving, making this book seem even more bland. At times it reads like a textbook, but at the same time it comes across as really unscientific in the way it drops all these unsupported assumptions on the reader. (Even when something seems obvious, academic standards require some minimal justification, or at the very least stating that something is to be taken for granted.) I started skimming toward the end of the first chapter, and after picking through the second chapter I didn't even finish and just gave up.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Poison: a history and family memoir

by Gail Bell

This was on my "want to read" list for years, and then one day I passed by it on the shelf and decided to check it out; then it sat on my shelf at home for quite a while, until one day it didn't renew because someone else had a hold on it. I probably could have renewed it in a few days, after that person's hold was satisfied with a different copy of the book, but I decided it was time at last to shit or get off the pot, as they say.

So, after all that waiting, the book is very good, but just a hair shy of excellent — not for any particular reason, just overall it's a B+ and not an A. (It occurs to me now, having just typed that, that the grade analogy is apt: though the book doesn't fail in a specific way, I've read a number of other conceptually similar books that are better, so this book is marked down relative to those that truly excel, as if graded on a curve.) It serves up a nice mix of facts and narrative, in the vein of well-known literary nonfiction books such as Salt; Cod; The Botany of Desire; The Big Oyster; Rats (the one by Robert Sullivan); etc. It even has a theoretical edge over other books of its ilk, in that it incorporates the family history angle, detailing the author's investigation of allegations that her grandfather poisoned two of his children.

Trained as a pharmacist, the author really knows her stuff when it comes to the chemical properties and biological effects of various poisonous substances. The historical information about famous poisoning cases, and also the less-scientific explorations of the literary, cultural, symbolic nature of poison and poisoning — the areas one might have expected her to falter or seem out of her element — are well-researched and well-written. I'm still giving it a hearty recommendation: ain't nothin' wrong with a B+.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Charmed Thirds

by Megan Mccafferty

At the end of my post about the first two books in this series (here), I expressed reservations about the direction in which to story seemed headed. Unfortunately, I was right. Even worse, it's not necessarily the plot per se that's disgusted me, it's the fact that the main character is so narcissistic and needy and pathetic. I think she has borderline personality disorder. I seriously doubt I will read the fourth book or, heaven forfend, the fifth. (BTW, did you ever hear of Fifth disease? It's parvovirus — which I always thought was a dog thing — for people. Gross.)

The Hunger Games

by Suzanne Collins

I read a review of this somewhere online, and it made me think of a few friends who I know are into young adult fantasy-type stuff. Coincidentally, the people I was thinking of all happen to be women, with whom I've discussed the particular appeal of YA fantasy with just the right amount of romantic tension — approaching, one could even say flirting with, but not quite entering the romance genre.

I'd also heard rumblings that this would be a "big" book, and sure enough I had to wait my turn to get it from the library. (Sadly, I must admit that when I first got it I was having some trouble managing my library materials and wound up returning it late, without even having read it, and putting it on hold again.) When at last I read this book, I found it to be a gripping, rip-roaring read completely deserving of the praise and good reviews. I also discovered a romantic edge to it that I hadn't expected but totally appreciated.

It's not overly girly. In fact, the protagonist is rather tomboy-ish, and the story involves hunting and wilderness skills, hand-to-hand combat and outright killing (people, no less). But I still would hesitate to recommend it to a teenage boy, unless he's a total fantasy nut, unostentatiously secure in his masculinity, and/or a little bit (or a lotta bit) gay. At the same time, I wouldn't recommend it to any ol' girl either, for sure not those with overly delicate sensibilities.

I should know enough to expect this by now, but I must unhappily report what I found at the conclusion: End Book One. When's the next book out? Who knows... nothing obvious on the author's official site or the publisher's site. Being a crafty liberrian, however, I found out from Books in Print that it's scheduled for publication in September 2009. The only consolation for having to wait that long is that the romance element is poised to ratchet up a bit in the next book.

Tales from Outer Suburbia

by Shaun Tan

I've been trying to think of a word to describe this amazing graphic novel-y book; it's unusual in both form and content. It's a collection of short stories (some very short) accompanied by illustrations. The stories are surreal without being spooky, while the illustrations are beautiful and detailed but also sort of soft-focus. I guess the best word is "dreamy," although I'm tempted to use "plush" (rich and smooth, as in "lush," but — despite the weirdness and unreality — gentle and comforting, like a stuffed animal), but that sounds weak and/or twee and doesn't really work without explanation.

What else? It's effing fantastic! Top 10 even! I would recommend this to anyone: adult, teen, tween; you could totally read it to little kids like a picture book. Anyone who likes GNs/comics or short stories and people who make/appreciate art will be especially pleased.

And it's totally cute that his name is spelled like Shaun Cassidy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Zine Round-up à trois

This is totally out of control, because all the while I've been trying to finish this post, I've been reading more zines on my lunch breaks. Won't somebody think of the children?!

Dealing with Difficult People, by S.K.L.(?)
Mostly funny stories — some from e-mails, Craigslist, and such — about interactions with the annoying people in our lives: cheap landlords, annoying and/or mentally ill co-workers, frenemies... the list goes on. I had a laugh-out-loud moment in a quiet restaurant while reading a story from a young woman who had tried to confront the neighbor she thought tattled on her for slamming doors: when she says "We're considerate of other people," he replies, "Then why do you wear your hair like that?"

Secret Mystery Love Shoes #5 and #6, by Maria Goodman and Androo Robinson
Very cute size-wise, and the humor is pretty cute and sassy too. If you opened a drawer labeled "odds and ends" and found an envelope labeled "miscellany," these zines might be inside. They exemplify the way details add up to a whole life, and they are a laugh riot to boot. Reading them will really make you want to invite Androo and Maria over for a game of Boggle.

Zuzu and the Baby Catcher, by Rhonda Baker
If you know me, you know I'm not a big fan of babies (except for eating babies, and making funny faces at babies, and mock-crying back at them when they cry). But I read this whole mommy-zine anyway, and it's pretty interesting. I imagine mommies would really like it. The author is also a doula or midwife (don't recall), and she chose to end this issue (no. 8 or 9, don't remember) with a reference that has seared an image into my brain forevermore. I don't want to do the same to you, so I'll just say, "Taint what it used to be".

Flytrap: Episode 1, Juggling Act, by Sara Ryan and Steve Lieber
Don't let the "Episode 1" fool you — you're getting dropped right into the middle of a story-in-progress. Kinda cryptic at first, and then it kills you by being so darn short. Clever, they are, because you will read more episodes; yes, you will.

Estrus Comics, Issue 5, Kiss & Tell, by Mari N. Schaal
As a boy, as a gay boy, I have to admit a slight aversion to the word "estrus" and things related. Luckily, these sex-related comics are friendly, funny, and approachable for the whole gender spectrum. I can't speak to other issues of Estrus Comics, but this one at least doesn't have a major feminist agenda.

Shorts, by Emily Block
Cute and doodle-y mini-comics featuring a bit of parkour (if you don't know what it is, look it up on the YouTubes, it's ridonkulous), and a Kill Bill-style murderous daydream.

Subgroup Cursive: the older sibling of Dusty Wing, Spring 2006, edited by Tod
Sweet little anthology of art, activities, and stories by, for, and about younger teens. Also for cool parents who want their kids to be cool too. Zine for this age group are pretty rare, in my experience.

The Heart Star, by Christoph Meyer
Precious, tiny, sentimental story of love, death, ghosts, and the cosmos. From the creator of 28 Pages Lovingly Bound with Twine.

How to Survive Heartbreak, by Michael Lee Cook
Breaking up is hard to do, laughter is the best medicine, the personal is political: this zine could be a mess of clichés, but the superb writing and illustrations lift it above all that. It begins with the dumpee's self-deprecating humor and sly innuendos about the dumper's character flaws, but then it does attempt to offer some earnest advice, before hitting you with the heavy existential crisis — an emotional roller-coaster in just a few thousand words. The illustrations, which I think were done by the author's brother, are of people with blank faces, only eyebrows to convey the range of emotions; it'll give you a new respect for your own eyebrows.

BFX, by Nate Beaty
It took me a while to figure out that the title is short for Brainfag 10; then it took another while for me to realize its relation to BFF, which is Brainfag Forever, and which my library has catalogued as a graphic novel rather than a zine (which happens sometimes to compilations of zines into a single volume); then I had to realize it's "fag" as in "fatigue" and not a gay thing. Anyway, brain fatigue is just what it sounds like, and I totally have it today, which is the excuse I'm going to use for not remembering much about this auto-bio mini-comic, which I'm sure is quite good. ... Actually, I just peeped the review from Booklist, and it jogged my memory! It really is good, and to the (debatable) extent that any zine can be considered a classic, this is for sure.

Some/Body, by Amaris Summer Jule Hayden
A zine in two parts: Chapter 1, Diagnosis; and Chapter 2, Denial. Also goes by the name Patient Files Confidential, and their covers are little file folders just like at the doctor's office. Pretty heavy stuff in here, about a woman's serious and potentially (probably, eventually) life-ending medical condition, her efforts to deal with it, and her worries about her kid's future without her.

The La-la Theory! Or a zine about language #2, by Katie Haegele
Man, what's with the zines with the super-long names? This one's title continues "February 2005, Fancy word for widow". (To some extent, lengthy titles result from a culture clash between library cataloguing practices and the free-form creative zine ethos.) In any case, linguistics is one of the things I kind of nerd-out about, so I really dug this one's multidisciplinary approach to it's subject. I even read it twice, because it had information I wanted to commit to memory: I learned about suttee, a dreadful fate that awaits some widows in India; and I learned that veuve, as in Veuve Clicquot champagne, is the French word for widow.

DAR: a super girly top secret comic diary, #1
Girlfuck: an introduction to girl-on-girl lovin'
I Like Girls, by Erika Moen
If that lovable Belgian reporter Tin-Tin were a lesbian... wait, he kind of is, isn't he? Anyway, it's just the shampoo-horn hairdo and being comics that they have in common. Girlfuck is quite informative and not nearly as icky (for gay boys) as it could be; the other two are more story-oriented. The best thing about all of them is their absolute candor and naughtiness and humor. Oh, and butt-sex jokes — what's funnier than butt sex?

Ivy, chapters 1 and 2, by Sarah Oleksyk
No idea if these mini-comics are autobiographical, or even semi-, but they're darn good. Really nice illustration style, bold and clear but also dynamic and nicely detailed; and a true-to-life storyline about a young woman on the verge of post-high school life. The author/artist also makes really awesome prints that she sells on her website. I'm totally in love with the "Otter Erotic" print, but it's kinda expensive; it would make a very nice present to give to a certain blogger whose birthday is August 1st.

There's No Such Thing as a Free Couch, by Katie C. and Nickey Robo
Put an ad on Craigslist offering a free couch, and you'll get a lot of responses. Now make it a couch with an unpleasant history, and let the jokes write themselves! Well, actually, weirdos willing to live with a haunted and/or soiled and/or louse-y couch will write e-mails that read like jokes. Next, post a personal ad from a woman who's openly bitchy and looking for a man she can emasculate and dominate: hilarity ensues. Nickey Robo also wrote a cute little thang called My Heart Beats Only for You and a Few Dozen Other People: A Zine About Crushes.

Listy and Listy 2, by Maria Goodman
Speaking of crushes, if I weren't a homo, I'd have a crush on Maria. As it is, I have a crush on her sense of humor. A variety of lists and list-related commentary is to be found in these zines, along with reviews of found lists. There's a book called Milk, Eggs, Vodka: Grocery Lists Lost and Found that sort of stole the idea — at least, I'm choosing to give Maria credit for inventing the concept because she does it better. The book is big and splashy, but it mostly just mocks the lists and list-makers; Listy is more analytical, almost scholarly at times, without sacrificing the funniness.

Deep Cuts: Comix About Jamz
Noise Art?!
True Tales of Actual Birds, Issue #1
by Actual Birds
I'm not sure how much of it is just the weird appeal of the name "Actual Birds," but I really enjoyed these wee comics. Two of them are seriously wee, bordering on ephemera (another magnetic word), and at least one doesn't even really have pages per se. I also don't know if there's a bird equivalent of a furry (feathery?), but I also have a strange attraction to the drawings of the guy with a human body and a bird's head.

Former Fetus, by Emily
A nakedly honest account of getting pregnant and getting an abortion, this would be a good recommendation for female teens, but anyone who reads it will feel its impact. I could see it being used in educational or counseling settings, but casual readers will probably find fuel for their own inner discussions.

Adventures in Service!, by Matt Fagan
"Featuring Hobbeson and Chives — crimefighting butlers in love and battle!" The author of this mini-comic explains that these are two orphan characters that he's played with for years, drawing single panels and short story fragments, but never turned into a bigger project. It's a shame, because I for one would like to read a longer story about these charming manservants of justice. (I'd also appreciate more opportunities to use the word "manservant.")

Wendy magazine #12, by Wendy and Wendy
This is a zine made by two Wendy's. (My friend from Ohio, who went to the same high school as the girl after whom the fast food chain is named, says that in those parts they say it more like "windy".) I've never seen any other issues, but this one's pretty good. They collected people's answers to the question "What haven't you told your mother?" and then provided complementary illustrations, collages, etc. Gives you the same voyeuristic thrill you get from Post Secret (website and book), along with the satisfaction of handicraft that comes with reading a zine.

What did you buy today? : Daily Drawings of Purchases, volume 3, April 2006, by Kate Bingaman-Burt
There's something really Buddhist and anti-consumerist about this, even though it's all about buying stuff — well, stuff that's already been boughten. The author makes nicely detailed drawings of something she buys each day. It's a glimpse into the everyday life of another person, and also prompts a pause for the viewer to think about all the things s/he buys (and maybe doesn't need, so the subtext seems to be.) She's also, according to the colophon, drawing copies of her credit card statements until they're paid off, which sounds like a punishment; if nothing else, it'll reduce the amount of time she has to spend more money.

Where are you from?, by A.M. O'Malley
While chronicling a childhood in many places and remembering a mother with a wandering heart, the author explores what "home" means. Well-written and very interesting, especially for someone like myself, who's only made one major change of address in 35 years.

Imaginary Life #4, Current Resident, by Krissy Durden
A great concept, and well-executed. (Don't you hate those amazing ideas that don't pan out?) It's like that game of making up stories about strangers, except using houses for the starting point and imaging stuff about the people who might live there. In a way, it's connected to the thesis of The Architecture of Happiness, which I wrote about here.

Urban Adventure League Zine Pack: Collecting the previous issues: bicycle rides and walks in Portland, by Shawn Granton
When the weather's nice, I always think about going for a walk or a bike ride, but if I don't have any errands to run it can be hard to figure out where to go. This awesome little thing saves the day! It's pocket-size, it has fold-out maps! Places to go, things to see along the way, and illustrations!

Papercutter: issue 7
Every Papercutter I've seen has been top-notch, inside and out, story and art. This one has work by Andy Hartzell and Aron Nels Steinke, and an M.K. Reed/Jonathan Hill collabo. "Americus" by Reed and Hill is a poignant middle school story of fading friendships and shifting loyalties; it also has an amazing line (spoken by a bully) that I think would make a great T-shirt: Ha! Books are totally queer!

All the Ancient Kings, by Julia Gfrörer
Imagined interactions among musicians and artists famous for their substance abuse as much as for their art, including Leonard Cohen, Warren Zevon, Hunter S. Thompson, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young. Great little comics, painstakingly (I'm guessing) and tinily (tiny-ly?) drawn.

Action Bookbinding!, by Skylaar Amann
A little bit hip hop, a little bit book nerd: this celebration of the craft won't exactly teach you to bind your own books, but it has illustrations and a dorky bespectacled white guy rapping. It's a real hoot. Wheat paste, yo!

Sidewalk Bump #2
Just like the first Sidewalk Bump, this one has a be-yoo-tee-full colored cover. Inside, there's a bunch of cool comics and art, by various artists, about skateboarding and the skater life.

Tales from the Bus: from the pages of Manuscripts Don't Burn, by Dr. Daniel Q. Swank
When she came to visit me a couple years ago, I had to work one day so I put my sister — all 5 feet and 100 pounds of her — on her very first public bus ride. She missed the stop and, not really understanding how buses work, tried to stay on the bus until it "looped around" so she could get off next time around. The bus she was on is not that kind of bus; it took her very far away, where she was made to get off and board another bus going back the opposite direction. Somewhere along the way, a gigantic fat person sat on her and didn't even hear her meekly saying "excuse me"; someone else on the bus had to intervene and tell the fatty "I think you're sitting on someone." That story pales in comparison to some of the most hilarious tales in this collection of crazy-but-true shit that went down on the bus during the author's workaday commute. Seriously. Funny. Shit.

Crazy with Good Intentions: too much & never enough; a personal zine, by Wyatt Riot
Reading a perzine can be rather dicey. When it's good, it's really good, like talking to an old friend; when it's bad, it's like the worst of the worst "reality" TV. Even though it's a hodgepodge of think-out-loud, this one works. The author (points for the name, BTW) is clearly intelligent and thoughtful, and has some interesting ideas that are made even more interesting by unpretentious postmodern punctuation and formatting.

The Penny Dreadful #. 19: The Last Days, by Mark Russell
Not as funny as the other issue of The Penny Dreadful that I read, and nowhere near as funny as The Superman Stories, but I definitely got a few chuckles from this vaudevillian zine. (That's "vaudeville" as in "variety," not as in "old-fashioned," although the title is a nod to the olden days.)

Nosedive, Lucky #13, by Erik R.
I have to admit that I only skimmed this one. At the risk of undermining my zine cred, I was kind of turned off by the angsty-punk, self-righteous, anti-gentrification thing. I mean, yeah, gentrification sucks (basically; the devil's in the details), but a certain amount of it is inevitable, and now that I'm over 30 I've given up trying to fix the world. Anyway, just not my cup of tea, so my thumbs down should be taken with a grain of salt.

Fuzzy Lunchbox, #11 and #12, by Laura and Deborah Nadel
Reading these zines is like telling stories with friends over drinks, especially since a lot of the stories are drinking stories. In addition to some laugh-out-loud moments, you'll also enjoy the clashing and meshing of the different voices and styles of the two authors, who are twins. Bad grammar and misspellings usually irritate me, but in this case the lack of spell-checking by one of the authors only adds to the funniness; it probably helps that the other doesn't seem to need spell check.

Water Column, by Josh Frankel
Gorgeous wordless (except few paragraphs at the very end) comic about the oceanic food chain, from plankton through copepods all the way to giant basking sharks. I'd love to know about the artist's technique, they almost look like wood- or linocuts. He also did a very sad, and also wordless, comic called Twilight of the Sea Cow, about the hunting to extinction of a giant sea mammal. On a barely-related note, I'd also like to plug the locally produced and utterly fascinating documentary film Crustaceans Alive Through a Microscope, filmed, edited and narrated by Warren A. Hatch.

I Was a Teenage Comic Nerd, by Liz Prince
I recognize the name, like she's, like, famous or something. I don't think I've read any of her stuff before, but I like her style. This collection is odds and ends from her younger years, short little auto-bio or semi-auto-bio vignettes. Her drawing style is cute, it reminds me of Powerpuff Girls but with long, stretchy limbs and normal-size heads.

Manhole #3, by Mardou
If this were any longer it would have to be called a Graphic Novel rather than a comic. Well-drawn and well-paced, it's a melancholy tale of young womens' friendship and how, when life changes, friendships fade.

What Are Crass?, by Sean Christensen et al.
Truly bizarre, and I'm certain the author would take that as a compliment without having to be told it's a compliment. Short comics about weird creatures in a weird world doing weird stuff. No other way to describe it.

I Cut My Hair #1, by Lisa Rosalie Eisenberg
Every time I try to think of or type this person's name, it comes out Lisa Marie, as in Presley — and for that I apologize, to no one in particular. Pleasingly drawn journal comics about working in the education system and about the creative process, and by a local author to boot. Shout out to Open Meadow!

As Eavesdropped #2, by Suzanne Baumann
Very short, very random, chuckle-inducing comics. My only complaint is, I want more! Sometimes I love the shortness of mini-comics and other zines, sometimes it's frustrating as heck. Whatcha gonna do?

White Male Neurosis, by James Williams
This guy has a unique-ish drawing style... I haven't seen many zines with a similar look, but it does kind of remind me of Lynda Barry in some ways. (I'd say there's R. Crumb influence, but how could there not be? It's like saying a band is influenced by the Beatles — duh!) But anyway, what I really like about this zine is the subject: it's about the author as a kid and how he built a wall of cereal boxes around himself because he couldn't stand the sight or sound of his family chewing. I myself have a powerful, rage-inspiring aversion to chewing sounds; if I ever go postal, it'll probably be the result of someone eating noisily. I know, it's a "First World crisis," not important in the larger scheme of things, compared to people who don't even have any thing to chew, noisily or quietly, but we all have our little issues. What's yours?

Squirrelly #1, by Sue Cargill
A really fantastic and inspiring collection of painfully detailed drawings and short, surreal stories on a variety of topics, but still thematically tight. All the stories deal with something or someone squirrelly (in the figurative sense), even the one that's about lobsters. Truly one of the best zines I've ever read, it made me wheeze with laughter.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Girl in Landscape

by Jonathan Lethem

I guess this is speculative fiction, since it isn't cataloged as science fiction. Future, space travel, extrasolar colonization, aliens... but somehow not sci-fi. The story doesn't have to be set on another planet, it could easily be re-worked as a western or in any kind of frontier/colonization situation. Except for that one thing, which I can't really tell you about.

In my experience, a lot of sci-fi and fantasy books are coming-of-age stories, whether it's a character growing up or a civilization maturing (or declining). There's a convergence in the liminal aspects of both the transformation narrative and the imaginative effort of writing or reading without reference to conventional reality. Girl in Landscape inhabits the same territory.

It's a fairly breezy read that I think would appeal to teens (the protagonist is a psychologically mature 13-year-old girl), but there's a barely contained complexity that keeps a multitude of themes and potential conclusions afloat. (I'm trying to think of an expressive image, but all I can come up with is a pillowcase full of kittens.) The ending is kind of abrupt, but I suppose it has to be, since it's also the collapse of all those possibilities into a single eventuality.

I don't want to get into the plot too much, but here's the set up: abandoned by both parents (one dead, one abdicated), Pella Marsh moves with her father and younger brothers to a very small human settlement on a planet whose inhabitants are strange remnants of a once-great culture that left their home and took to the stars; transplanted into this environment, she faces the tyranny and the disappointment of adults, while becoming one herself.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Architecture of Happiness

by Alain de Botton

This is, without a doubt, a Top 10 book. It's one of those books that make me want to be the author, or at least be smart enough and creative enough to write this book. It helps that I'm a total geek for architecture, but this book is very accessible for non-geeks too.

Architecture has elements of art and science, the proportion varying over time and place (and space), and that's kind of what this book is about: the many different ways, successfully and not so successfully, that architecture combines aesthetics and practicality, philosophy and physics, engineering and emotion — and, ultimately, the many different ways architecture reflects and shapes ourselves and our world, and our perceptions of ourselves and our world.

But that makes it sound terribly academic, or like a pompous art gallery artist's statement, or some dilettante spazzing about jazz, or some hideous combination of all three. And I swear it's not like that! It's so much more beautiful and subtle and grounded in everyday experience. Reading it is like meditating (but way less boring).

Last thing I want to say is, don't expect to read the whole thing through in large chunks. Each chapter is further broken down into a series of vignettes (for lack of a better word), which adds to the meditative quality and makes it an ideal bedtime or toilet book. I'm not necessarily recommending you read just one wee section at a time, but giving yourself some time to absorb and marinate smaller amounts will definitely enhance the experience of reading this book.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Jesus Freaks: a true story of murder and madness on the evangelical edge

by Don Lattin

After I read this book, which I think was back in fall of 2007, I made a blog entry with just the title and author, thinking I'd get around to finishing it in a few days. Yeah, right. So here I am a year and a half later finally getting around to it. Knowing there's some kind of subtitle, I just did a quick keyword search, only to find that there are not one, not two, but three other books called Jesus Freaks. Subtitle indeed.

In this case, the word "freaks" refers not only to the fact that these people are really into Jesus, but also to the fact that the organization (sometimes known as Children of God, or Family of God) grew out of the hippies for Jesus movement dating back to the free-love, anti-war '60s counter culture — in other words, they're freaks because they're hippies, as in "freaking out the straights, man." (And that's "straights" as in straitlaced non-hippies, probably but not necessarily heterosexuals.)

So, the Family of God is basically a cult, complete with tyrannical leader, shady finances, questionable "religious" practices, brainwashing, the whole nine. Some female followers reportedly engaged in "fishing for Jesus," which was having sex for money or to convert, and there was something sort of like polygamy going on, for the leader at least. There also have been allegations of child molestation and/or incest. (The family of River and Joaquin Phoenix was apparently involved in the cult at one point; a friend told me she read in an interview that River Phoenix said he'd lost his virginity at age 4 with an adult woman.)

What about the murder, then? A boy who was born into the cult and raised as if he were going to inherit leadership of the cult (and at times treated like or portrayed as the new messiah) becomes disillusioned as a teenager and leaves the cult, but can't escape it's influence and winds up murdering the leader's second (third?) "wife" and then kills himself not long after. He may have been hoping to kill more people, but it's hard to tell for sure. Either way, it's a rather anti-climactic ending, for him at least.

Ultimately, it was an OK book, a little bit of a guilty, voyeuristic pleasure. Not quite tabloid levels of sensationalism, but definitely meant to be shocking. It seems well-researched enough, and there isn't any apparent reason to question the author's motivation, but it somehow falls just shy of proper journalism. I had a couple of friends at the time who were reading a lot of I-escaped-a-Mormon-cult books, and I recommended this to them. I've never read an Ann Rule book (she's the queen of true crime, if you didn't know), but I imagine they're a lot like this.

Close Range: Wyoming Stories

by Annie Proulx

When the movie Brokeback Mountain came out back in 2005, I remember hearing from somewhere that the original short story is quite different from the movie. Ever since, I'd been curious about it.

(For the record, I didn't like the movie that much the first time I saw it. I was just kinda "meh." I watched it again on DVD, cuz I have several friends who really-really-really liked it. After watching it a second time, I realize that part of the reason I didn't like it is that it's hard to understand what the characters are saying. Ennis especially is a mumbler, but Jack too. And I think the sound quality in general is just kinda poor. I did, however, like the movie more upon second watching — at home with the sound turned way up — and in fact it made me cry.)

So, fast-forward to late last week. I finally got around to reading the book. "Brokeback Mountain" happens to be the last story in the collection, and I wanted to read some of the others for the sake of context too. I didn't really like the first one... second one was better. Not bad, necessarily, but not my cup of tea. I got through most of the book, and warmed up a little to the western milieu, but finally decided to skip the last two before "Brokeback Mountain."

Turns out it's exactly like the movie — or vice versa, I suppose. There are several lines of dialogue in the movie exactly as they are in the book. And again it made me cry.

I wish I could remember how/where I got the impression that the story was supposed to be different from the movie. Makes me wonder if there wasn't some of kind of conservative smear campaign to convince people the movie was pro-gay Hollywood propaganda because stuff like that wouldn't/doesn't happen in the "real" wild west.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Countess Below Stairs

by Eva Ibbotson

I don't know if I've made any snide remarks about romance novels here in this blog, but I'm pretty sure I haven't fully and openly mocked them — at least, I hope I haven't, because I have a confession to make...

When I was in middle school, I used to sneak into my sister's room so I could borrow her Sweet Valley High books. I've read almost all of the Princess Diaries books (and there's a lot of them). I've read (and enjoyed) Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging (and two of its sequels); Meagan Meade's Guide to the McGowan Boys (and wished it had a sequel); I Capture the Castle (even though, or perhaps because I'd already seen the movie); and I especially loved Victoria and the Rogue, from the Avon True Teen Romance series. Romantic comedies are well-represented in my Netflix queue. (I've also read quite a few Victorian novels — Austen, various Brontes, Hardy, Eliot — many of which involve romance, but they have history on their side and aren't as embarrassing.)

So imagine my (sort of secret, barely concealed) joy when I came upon this book, in which a young Russian countess flees the revolution and, having been forced to abandon all her wealth and possessions, finds work as a lowly chambermaid on an English estate... I shouldn't have to add that, of course, the estate's dashing young master returns from abroad and discovers a stunningly beautiful and shockingly well-educated young woman has joined his staff.... (Now that I've written staff I really must let you finish the thought yourself.)

Actually, everyone is quite chaste, moonlit skinny-dipping (and accidental skinny-watching) notwithstanding. All in all I really liked this book, for what it is. It isn't spectacular in any way, but it's a very good example of the genre, and, to it's credit, the plot owes more to the likes of Austen than to the more modern Harlequin formula.

Monday, April 13, 2009


by Karin Lowachee

The first book in this sort-of-series is Warchild, which I wrote about here. It's not exactly a series, because the stories aren't sequential; instead they're the same basic story told from the points of view of three different characters (another echo of Orson Scott Card's "Enderverse"). I don't know why I didn't just check the publication dates, but I somehow managed to read them out of order. It didn't really matter for these two, but reading either of these before Warchild would have ruined that book's ending, so I'm glad I at least got that part right.

These books are definitely of the military sci-fi subgenre, but there's also the heavy focus on character and emotion typical of the soft/social sci-fi subgenre. Each of the main characters experiences physical and psychological trauma, and ultimately finds the inner strength to endure, first, and then to free themselves from their pasts. The way the protagonists evolve sort of reminded me of some of Octavia Butler's heroines, too.

All three characters are young men, ranging in age from 14 to 20 during the main action of the books, with some flashbacks or introductory parts about their earlier childhoods. (At my library, they're classified as young adult books, but I've seen them catalogued as regular SF on other libraries' websites.) Partly as a function of their ages, and also because of a major plot element — war, piracy, kidnapping, forced prostitution — sexual themes arise. It's mostly innuendo of the gay-vague and gay-chicken* variety; only Cagebird has actual gay characters and actual sex happening, which is slightly more explicit than a romance novel but far from the language of erotica.

*Not to be confused with the older gay slang "chicken," referring to a very young gay boy/man usually in the context of a relationship with an older gay man, "gay chicken" is when (supposedly) straight guys say and/or do "gay" things to each other, turning up the intensity and pushing boundaries until one of them "chickens" out. It's related to frat-boy/athlete/military sexual bravado and gay-baiting, and it depends on the paradox that the more secure you are in your masculinity, the farther you can push the gay boundary. In these books, there's also an implied feeling that there's much less social stigma attached to being gay and that gender and sexuality categories are... not exactly fluid, but maybe more mix-and-match.

Final analysis: the action and intrigue of Ender's Game or a Heinliein book, with the added attraction of teen angst and sexiness. I loved this series, and I'd recommend it to teens and adults alike. I'm very sad that my library no longer has Warchild and is down to one copy each of Burndive and Cagebird. I'm even considering putting them in my Top 10.