Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Action Philosophers: the lives and thoughts of history's A-list brain trust told in a hip and humorous fashion, vol. 1

by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey

Graphic novels and comics (and manga too) are sometimes praised as the wedge that can get teens and other reluctant readers reading — content be damned, as long as they're reading something! And then of course you might be able to trick them into learning something by reading a graphic version of Shakespeare or Moby-Dick or whatever. I've even seen graphic presentations of chemistry and other science subjects, for all those "visual learners" out there. (I sort of agree, but I also sort of think it's baloney. I mean, the mental effort and discipline, and the imagination involved in reading a novel as a novel — and lots of other kinds of words-only reading — has educational and intellectual value beyond just knowing the story.)

Action Philosophers is a fun way for anyone to learn the bullet points of major figures in philosophy. If you like to think of yourself as well-rounded, widely-read, culture, erudite, etc., this series would be a great way to get exposure to philosophers and their ideas without having to read an introduction to philosophy book; the graphic format might even help lodge some of the info in your cranium. Serious students of philosophy need not apply, but I'd say there's enough info even for a very short report or essay.

This volume 1 collects numbers 1-3 of the original comic book series. Included are Plato, Bodhidharma, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Jefferson, St. Augustine, Ayn Rand, Sigmund Freud, C.G. Jung, and Joseph Campbell.

Working Stiff: the misadventures of an accidental sexpert

by Grant Stoddard

This book is one of those pulp-y sort of memoirs, often humorous, written by people far to young to be writing memoirs. There's probably a word for it in the publishing industry, those books by young-ish people about interesting episodes in their lives — strange and/or terrible job and/or boss; a year of doing or not doing something most people take for granted; something extreme or weird has made me wise beyond my years; etc. etc. etc. It's also an example of another odd species of the publishing world: the magazine/newspaper/online column or blog re-packaged as a book with little or no new material. Light, amusing reading, nothing wrong with that.

All that sounds pretty negative, doesn't it? The book is quite funny and engagingly written, in fact, despite being what it is. I never read this guy's column, so I can't actually say how much new material is in the book, but it seems to talk a lot about his research and writing process in a way that seemed as if it wouldn't have been part of his articles as originally published. The stuff about his immigration issues and other background is also fresh material, I'd imagine. I also instantly liked him because he's British, and kinda short for a guy.

After following a girlfriend to the U.S., the author falls into a job as a sort of sexual guinea pig for an erotic website. (Actually erotic, with literary pretensions and all, rather than pornographic, but also intentionally edgy and risque.) He gets sent to fetish balls and group sex parties, missions to test pick-up lines, nudist camp, asked to try sex toys and female condoms with his girlfriend — that kind of stuff — culminating in his final assignment: to mold a dildo from his own penis (there's a kit for that) and have a lady friend strap it on and screw him with it.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Thirteenth Tale

by Diane Setterfield

If you want the excitement and suspense of a "thriller" without the spies, terrorists, viruses, or serial killers, this might be the book for you. It's a gothic Victorian-ish story with ghosts, twins, probably incest, bastards, foundlings, cats, skeletons, a governess, scars, a fire, a blizzard on the moors. It's very gripping and exciting, and I got really into it and had a hard time putting it down. (Unfortunately, I got interrupted really close to the end and couldn't get back to it for several days, which deflated the ending a bit for me — so make sure you plan enough time to read through to the end once it gets going.)

It feels as if a certain kind of teenage girl would really like this book. What comes to mind as a comparison, aside from Jane Eyre, is Gentlemen and Players, which caused me to get sunburned because I was so engrossed I forgot to turn over.

Addendum: I just realized it could also be compared to Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which I've previously compared to The Secret History.

The Cult of the Amateur: how today's Internet is killing our culture

by Andrew Keen

I'm kind of glad I didn't write up this one immediately after I read it. Nonfiction books are difficult to review to begin with, and with a book like this one there's also the danger of getting bogged down in a point-by-point argument for or against whatever the book is for or against.

Anyway, this guy made a bunch of money in the original, Clinton-era interwebs bubble, spent some time trumpeting the salvational virtues of the web, managed to get out without losing his shirt, and has now written a book warning of the perils of Web 2.0 technology. Pretty much the usual arguments (Google is making us stupid; YouTube is sometimes amusing and almost always useless; Wikipedia isn't reliable enough; the "wisdom of the crowd" isn't actually all that wise; if no one pays for music and anyone can put their crappy songs on Myspace, there's no way for the good stuff to rise above the crap; etc.), all of which have some validity, up to a point. As in all polemics, some of his points are overstated, in order to draw attention and... to make a point. It's a pretty short book, so worth a gander if these issues are of interest to you; in any case, it won't be a huge waste of time.

I agree that Google is making us stupid, but I also know that, most of the time, Google does the trick. I also think cell phones weaken the memory — how many phone numbers do you have memorized now that you have a cell? I hate it that so many things on the web are video, because I like to read and because it isn't always convenient to watch/listen. (Not to mention that it's kind of lazy for "citizen journalists" and bloggers to just post the clip instead of making the effort to describe something in words.)

Ultimately, however, I believe that both the boosters/futurists and the negative nellies are right, and wrong. I just hope I die before everything goes video.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Tell Me Everything: a novel

by Sarah Salway

The protagonist of this book is a pathological liar — unless she's so delusional that she doesn't realize she's lying — or may she's just lying to herself too. In theory, I guess, it's an interesting exploration of truth and truth-telling, growing up and learning the rules of shared reality, make-believe as essential to the construction of a self... but ultimately I just found the character annoying, willful, stupid, mean, self-destructive: in a word, a teenager, but with all that stuff magnified and laid bare. Looking back I'm kind of surprised that I didn't quit reading it. I think maybe I was waiting for the big "reveal" at the end, but I didn't really feel the impact, maybe because I wasn't invested in (or impressed by) the character's ambition to create a new life for herself, because I didn't feel her pain.

The character's quasi-fugue escapism reminds me a bit of The Dive from Clausen's Pier, in which a young woman runs away from dealing with her fiance's paralyzing injury — a real trauma, even if the physical trauma is not her own. In this book, however, it's never entirely clear if any real trauma serves as motivation, or if attention-seeking behavior manufactures a a justification for itself.