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.