Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Logicomix: an epic search for truth

by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou
with Alecos Papadatos (art) and Annie Di Donna (color)

Abso-frickin'-lutely amazing! But I'm afraid if I tell you what it's about, you probably will think it sounds really boring...

This graphic novel tells the life story of philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell, who sought a solid logical foundation for mathematics and instead discovered a paradox that demonstrates the impossibility of describing, or even locating, such a bedrock from within the system of math, set theory and formal logic. Amazing, right? I mean, have you ever asked yourself whether "the set of all sets that don't contain themselves" contains itself? Of course it doesn't, because if it did, then it wouldn't, in which case it would, because it couldn't... Perhaps there's a reason so many logicians go insane (or why the insane are attracted to the study of formal logic).

Just like Russell's paradox, this book is self-referential, with segments on how the authors and illustrators worked on constructing the story, discussion of the meaning of the story and of story-telling itself, and even an allegory of sorts relating to the Greek tragedy The Eumenides, the last play in the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus.

Monday, December 06, 2010


by Dale Peck

I like the first half of this book, when the green-haired small-town gay boy is secretly shtupping the hot corn-fed (half-Latino) jock. But I guess that's been done before, notably in Geography Club by Brent Hartinger.

The second half of the book went all weird and creepy with the introduction of a new character. That's also been done before, but this one sort of goes double creepy in an unappealing and unsettling way. The ending is all over the place: hopeful, hollow, heartbreaking. Made me give the book an overall negative rating.

Another complaint I have is that it fails to make use of the opportunity to deliver a safe-sex message. In fact, the only time condoms are mentioned, two teen characters are mocking adults' use of them. A quarter of a million Americans are HIV-positive and don't know it, and it isn't necessarily safer in the rural Midwest, where the story is set. So get tested, fools, and remember, Safe Sex Is Hot Sex!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Yellow Dirt: an American story of a poisoned land and a people betrayed

by Judy Pasternak

Interesting, yes. Depressing, oh hell yes. Good book, though, and quite readable.

The author, an L.A. Times reporter, in this book expands her original series of articles investigating the still-lingering tragic effects of uranium mining on the Navajo reservation in the southwest United States. So, yeah, Native Americans... no big surprise they've been effed over, and effed over hard by our government, absolutely derelict in its duty (by treaty) to protect the welfare and interests of the Navajo. First, during the Manhattan Project, the government pretty much did the effing themselves, all but stealing ("renting") the mineral rights and then employing Navajo as miners with no protective equipment, and doing nothing to contain the spread of contaminated soil, dust and water. Then, of course (right?), the government skipped town and turned a blind eye for years to the general injustice and pollution in the first place and to the continuing misbehavior of the private companies that began competing for the precious resource with no thought to the people living on top of it (and in some very tragic cases, living in houses made of it).

Worst part? How recently this bullshit was hapenning (into the '80s for sure) and how little has really been done to redress the harm, even though more positive action has been taken in the last decade than in the previous 40 years of Kafka-esque bungling, evasion and disavowal/shirking of responsibility.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Professor and the Madman: a tale of murder, insanity and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary

by Simon Winchester

Sounds like a really nerdy book, and I have admitted to being somewhat nerdy, but this book is surprisingly exciting. I really tore through it and had trouble putting it down when I needed to. Seriously, not dry or boring at all. The subtitle hints at the sort of intrigue that gives the book a bit of thriller-iness, but it's also quite interesting to read about the who's and how's and the sheer humungousness of the creation of the OED. And I really swear it's not boring! It's like a really good episode of Nova or History Detectives, with a dash of Poirot. Probably among the Top 10 literary nonfiction books I've ever read, I recommend it highly.

The Halfway House

by Guillermo Rosales

A posthumously published novella about mental illness written by a mentally ill Cuban exile who committed suicide in middle-age after destroying most of his unpublished work. I read it in a couple of hours, not bad but not great, I might not have read the whole thing if it had been longer.

I seem to have a love-it-or-leave-it thing with Latin American literature. I really like what I've read by García Márquez and I've enjoyed a few things by Carlos Fuentes. On the nonfiction/memoir side, there's the fantastic Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas (also Cuban), which was so good I bought a copy for a friend. (The movie is quite good, too.) But I've had a couple of duds recently. ¡Qué lástima!

Cold Sleep

by Narise Konohara

Is amnesia ever a solid premise? Maybe for a comedy, but otherwise I kinda think it fails more often than it succeeds.

While not exactly a success, this book is certainly much better than Dear Myself, another amneisa-themed yaoi. Also, it's more of an illustrated novel than a manga. The writing is pretty decent, but the story is not as compelling as Don't Worry Mama, a book by the same author that I absolutely adored. Kind of a lukewarm recommendation, but it is what it is. It's been a while since I read it, but I recall that it didn't have a decisive ending, so maybe it's part of a series; I'd certainly consider reading a sequel.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Secret Historian: the life and times of Samuel Steward, professor, tattoo artist, and sexual renegade 

by Justin Spring

I don't remember how I stumbled across Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo with Gangs, Sailors, and Street-corner Punks, 1950-1965 by Samuel M. Steward, but I do remember the picture on the cover:

Um, how could I not read that?

Anyway, I think I heard the author of this exhaustive biography on Fresh Air and got interested in reading more about the unusual life of the real Professor Sparrow (his nom de needle during his tattooing years). I was pulled in right away and became excited to read about the fun, sexy times of a guy who kept a Stud File (including, in some cases, forensic "samples") with deets on every one of the many hundreds of dudes he hooked up with. Of course, he was also a writer of poetry, novels and erotica; a friend of Thornton Wilder and Gertrude Stein; a collaborator and chum of the infamous Kinsey; an artist; a compulsive collector and record-keeper; and a capable self-analyst.

The book is quite long for a bio of a non-famous person, and does drag just a bit in some places, but it really is quite engaging throughout. Perhaps not very easy to recommend to someone you don't know fairly well, but it is written so as not to be titillating and it is a fascinating glimpse into the largely undocumented demimonde of pre-Stonewall gay life.

The Scorch Trials

by James Dashner


A few tantalizing hints about WICKED and the real purpose of the trials, but really just more of the same and nothing truly new. It's making me mentally reëvaluate The Maze Runner. Rather like those stupid teenage vampire books I read, the poor quality of the writing becomes all to apparent once you get past the novelty and excitement of the first book. A really good idea for a story is maybe enough to carry a bush-league author through one book, but especially in young adult there are nearly always plans for a trilogy (at least). A rather dreary reflection of the state of the publishing industry? Or am I the wretched one, becuase I'm going to read the third book, however much it pains me?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Through the Language Glass: why the world looks different in other languages

by Guy Deutscher

I call shenanigans! After detailing the Sapir-Whorf debacle and cautioning against unfounded assumptions generally, and after the caveat that there is much we do not know about brain function and physiology, this linguist goes and says:

"[I]t becomes clear that when the brain has to decide whether two colors look the same or not, the circuits responsible for visual perception ask the language circuits for help in making decision, even if no speaking is involved. So for the first time, there is now direct neurophysiologic evidence that areas of the brain that are specifically responsible for name finding are involved with the processing of purely visual color information."
Now, I'm no neurophysiologist, but I know a thing or two. Even overlooking the weak "it becomes clear" excuse for an explanation, I immediately thought of at least one good reason that language areas of the brain would fire while a person is analyzing visual input about colors, and it has nothing at all to do with the visual circuits "asking for help" from the language circuits!

Anyway, now I've got that off my chest.... I really liked the first third of this book, in which the author talks about the mystery of the seeming absence of color descriptions in ancient texts, and runs through the history of color naming and color perception ideas (among others) in linguistic studies. I don't want to go into too much detail about the trail of breadcrumbs he's trying to lay out, but suffice it to say after an intriguing launch he started losing me halfway through, and by the end I was thoroughly disgusted and so ready for the book to be over.

The Ax

by Donald E. Westlake

I've dissed "thrillers" before, and been chagrined after liking one, and I did read quite a bit of Stephen King in high school. This book was decently amusing, if predictable, and the reading was smooth and fast. Still, I'm not sure how much I'd've enjoyed it if I hadn't been sick on the couch and bored of watching TV. Does have some funny bits, maybe like a Carl Hiaasen book (though I've never read him).

Although the book was written a bit over a decade ago, during the workforce "downsizing" of the mid-to-late '90s, it's interesting to read now during our current economic "downturn." The story is about a guy, unemployed for nearly two years after being laid off from a job he had for 30 years. As an older dude with a rather specialized set of skills, his options are quite limited. In a trade journal he finds an article about some other guy who has exactly the job he wants and for which he is qualified, but he knows he's not the only unemployed polymerized paper production manager in the Northeast. So he hatches a plan: he places a fake help-wanted ad, receives a bunch of résumés, then sets out to kill the five guys who are as qualified or more qualified than he, before killing the guy who has the job he wants. But will everything go according to plan?


by M.T. Anderson

The fourth book I picked up because of the teen dystopian fiction article in the New Yorker, and the least like the others. Set in a future of near-earth space travel and the intertubes — complete, even replete with context-sensitive advertising — piped directly into the brain, related viruses and diseases, plus a hint of disaffected youth and potential resistance, it has all the right ingredients. The ending, however, was rather anti-climactic and left me feeling as if the story, and the experience of reading it, had no point. Which is, in a way, an accurate adolescent feeling, but still disappointing.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Dreams from the Monster Factory: a tale of prison, redemption and one woman's fight to restore justice to all

by Sunny Schwartz with David Boodell

I have a weird and mostly unanalyzed fascination with prison. (Could it be a gay sort-of-fetish thing?) Anyway, this book doesn't have any sexy bits, like the HBO series Oz, but it's a pretty good read. The author worked in jails in San Francisco, bringing in educational opportunities, anger management classes, and other programs to prepare inmates to rejoin society. Sure, criminals are there to be punished not coddled, but since very nearly all of them will eventually be released, and given the very high rates of recidivism and re-incarceration, it makes sense to use the opportunity to help them. If they're just corralled and left to stew in their own juices, fighting with one another and still being criminals inside the jailhouse, they'll emerge even more bitter and screwed up, more violent and maladjusted. The strength and energy of the author's personality and odds-beating positivity make an engaging story of a subject that could easily be a real downer.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth

by Carrie Ryan

This is the third of the books I read because of the New Yorker article about teen dystopian fiction, and it's the first of them to be a disappointment. It's about zombies and also is kind of like M. Night Shermomanon's The Village. All the necessary elements were there, but the story never really gelled and never really sucked me in. There's a sequel or "companion book" out, but I'm not going to read it. Overall rating: meh.

The Queue

by Vladimir Sorokin

I think I recall from the intro (or afterword or something) and from a review I read, that this book was only recently published in English for the first time. In any case, I'd been meaning to read more Russian novels, so I gave it a try. The story is about people standing in line to buy something in Moscow, in the Soviet days when that was common. Interestingly, it's told entirely in dialog, and without any attribution, and the thing they're meant to be buying is elusive and fungible, and the characters almost seem not to care what they're queuing for even while they're anxious that supplies might run out. The author's intro/outro talks about the symbolic, cultural, historical, psychological, even spiritual properties of the queue vis-à-vis the ethos of the Russian people.

It was a very strange reading experience, given the sort of experimental or postmodern structure, which was at times a bit irritating but ultimately worked somehow to express the author's implicit messages. Particularly and peculiarly effective was a lengthy sex scene (two, actually, maybe three) made up entirely of alternating variations of aah's and haa's. It takes a bit of imaginative effort, but if you let yourself get lost in the rhythm and speed and sounds of the panting exhalations, you might find yourself becoming aroused. I personally found it quite stimulating.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Nothing Nice to Say

by Mitch Clem

This is a collection of comic strips, but there's also somewhat of an ongoing narrative thread, sort of the way Garfield books work. The author provides a helpful brief introduction to his work and characters, and then you can dive right in to the jokey world of punks and musicians. I mostly wanted to read it because one of the characters shown on the cover looks to be a skinny punk bear, but it turns out he's a gopher — becuase Minnesota is the gopher state would be my guess. Anyway, it's fairly light reading but definitely enjoyable and amusing, with a good sense of humor.

String Too Short to Be Saved

by Donald Hall

A co-worker once mentioned the tale of the guy who was cleaning out his grandparents' attic and found a small box neatly labeled "string too short to be saved" — because, even if it's too short to be saved, there's no sense throwing it out until you have a whole box of it, right? As someone with mild hoarding tendencies (but with moon in Virgo, so my shit would organized), I was intrigued, had occasion to tell other people and laugh about it, and mentioned it every now and then to my co-worker.

Though I'd thought the story might be apocryphal, I eventually got around to reading the book, which is a collection of reminiscences of the author's boyhood summers on his grandfather's farm in New Hampshire. The stories are old-fashioned in a sweet and comforting way, and the author's nostalgia (not without ambivalence) for the simple and rustic life rubbed off and gave me a sort of false nostalgia. I don't think he overly romanticized the older folks' vanishing way of life, but I can see how some people might find this book sappy. I rather enjoyed it, though; it was especially nice to read in the woods at the river's edge on a sunny afternoon.

The Disappearing Spoon: and other true tales of madness, love, and the history of the world from the periodic table of the elements

by Sam Kean

Lots of interesting info in this book, but overall it kind of disappointed me. To be frank, I actually had trouble finishing. Wasn't quite what I'd hoped it would be, and I had some issues with the organization. Toward the end in particular, the author told unnecessarily long tangential stories, and while the background stuff is sometimes enlightening, I wanted more hard science. I'd have liked some mention, however brief, of every element's chemical properties, even in the absence of any interesting backstory.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea

by Philip Hoare

In many situations, I've contended that so-called ethical arguments for prohibition of killing animals are biologically unsound, because unless you can photosynthesize you have to kill something else in order to live. (And if you can imagine that chickens suffer in a comprehensible way, is it such a big leap to realize plants might not enjoy their experience of farming either? But I digress....) I even argued once that a few countries continuing sustainable, compassionate (as possible) harvest of whales is not that big a deal in the grand scheme.

I still don't worry much about the fate of chickens, but this book really changed my mind about whales. Not that it's a call to action or anything. It's actually a wide-ranging and mostly dispassionate (despite the author's passion for learning about whales) exploration of many aspects of whales and whaling in literature, history, ecology, mythology, and more. But the listing of the numbers and kinds of whales slaughtered in the startlingly short heyday of the whaling industry does not require any bluster: it is a staggering, heartbreaking and obvious case of genocide. Even allowing that most people in the 19th century believed Nature to be inexhaustible, even considering what was not (and still is not) known of whale physiology (not to mention the likelihood of whale psychology), the mind reels at the sheer number of animals killed and the manner in which they were hunted and murdered.

But don't get me wrong — it's not all gloom and doom. The book is, as I said, wide-ranging in subject, despite ultimately being all about whales. It's fairly long, but somehow never dry or boring, in that way of good books about everything and nothing. You needn't be particularly interested in cetaceans or Melville or history to enjoy reading this book, you need only be curious about the world and willing to plumb the depths of your unknowing.

About a Mountain

by John D'Agata

What a strange and wonderful book!

Part memoir, part investigative journalism, full of information and reason and compassion, and that je ne sais quoi of pleasurable reading regardless of the subject. The author, a longtime magazine writer, moves his mother to Las Vegas and winds up lingering there himself, on the fringe of that misbegotten, faux-paradise house of cards in the middle of the desert where no such thing belongs. Mulling over the queer paradox that is his new home, he begins to investigate the long simmering and controversial plan to secrete the nation's spent nuclear reactor fuel in Yucca Mountain, a disturbingly unsuitable scheme for myriad reasons. He also volunteers for a suicide hot line in the American city with the highest rate of such deaths, and he tracks down the story of a young person (not the first) who leapt to oblivion from the observation deck of the Stratosphere hotel, itself a monstrosity in a city of never ending freak shows.

Surely one of the best books I've read this year.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

by D. Travers Scott

The only thing I liked about this book was the sex scene between one of the less-crazy ginger clones and the county sheriff. Other than that, it's pretty terribly written and not even a very good story. It was a recommendation from a friend — sorry, friend!

People Are Unappealing: Even Me

by Sara Barron

If you like David Sedaris... pretty much sums it up. But I really mean it. This book is super hilarious, so funny that you'll laugh just remembering some of the stories. Like, the one where she goes to her parent's house for some holiday and finds her old journal, in which at the age of 11 she wrote a script for a porno movie, and somehow decides it will be fun/funny, rather than horrifyingly humiliating (which of course it is), to bring it downstairs and show it to her family.

The Moon and the Sandals, vols. 1 & 2

by Fumi Yoshinaga

It bears repeating, Fumi Yoshinaga is possibly the greatest boys-love manga creator ever! (Previous posts here.)

This beautifully drawn series is mostly about a developing student-teacher relationship, with the student as the aggressor, and with some appeareances by the teacher's ex. The story doesn't dwell much on the questionable ethics of the relationship, but neither does it make that transgressive element the main focus of the eroticism and romance — this sort of complexity and ambiguity is characteristc of the author's work, and is often missing from other yaoi. While I quite enjoyed the first, the second volume seemed kind of sketchy and forced, but then it was nice, too, to see indications of the characters coming out at work and to parents in the later chapters of their relationship.

Truly Kindly
Lovers in the Night

by Fumi Yoshinaga

Ordered both of these through the interlibrary loan service, and it turned out Truly Kindly had to come from the Library of Congress and would have to be in-library-use only. It's a wide-ranging collection of vignettes with different characters, with some nice sexy bits and also thoughtful exploration of many aspects of relationships between men. It includes different historical periods and cultures, interracial dating, coming out later in life after being married, relationship violence, and more. Very, very good all around.

Lovers in the Night expands the story of Claude and Antoine, a master and servant tale set in 18th century France and introduced in Truly Kindly. Over all I liked it less, found the characters less sympathetic and the story more trite. On the other hand, how much can one complain about a book in which, on the second page, a character narrates, "After he ejaculated in my mouth, he brought me to the mansion of an aristocrat"?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Citrus County

by John Brandon

The review I read of this book made it sound interesting and horrible at the same time, maybe like looking at photos of disasters or gross medical conditions. In this case, the "conditions" from which the characters suffer are psychological: extreme narcissism, emotional retardation, etc. Nothing really unusual, actually, in 21st century America, but turned up to 11. Oh, yes, people are monsters and do horrible things, but they're just slightly worse or a little less inhibited than the rest of us — oh, but the delicious thrill for us normal folk to peer into the dark, dead hearts of inhumane creatures! In some ways it reminded me of the creepy ending of the 2001 French movie Fat Girl, directed by Catherine Breillat, and any number of Todd Solondz films, as well as at least one other book I've read whose title escapes me at the moment.... But this book is actually not so bad to read, I guess, since I got through the whole thing rather quickly. Still, it can be somewhat draining to have to deal with The Sociopath Next Door. (That being the title of a nonfiction book that's quite interesting and disturbing itself. When you read it, who among your friends and family will you recognize?)

McSweeney's is the future of book publishing, by the way. I keep reading all this chicken little crap about how physical books will disappear soon, but no e-book will ever replace the tactile experience of reading books. So if a publisher wants to survive the so-called e-book revolution, they ought to be making books like this one, artfully constructed and sensual. The cover of Citrus County actually has textural elements incorporated in its design. You'll never get that on your Kindle.

Taming the Gods: religion and democracy on three continents

by Ian Buruma

Although the author certainly makes some very interesting points about ways religions have (sometimes negatively) influenced the development of governmental forms in various cultures, this book wasn't really what I'd hoped it would be. The writing isn't great, sometimes difficult and unnecessarily pretentious/intellectual. Being quite anti-religion myself, I was hoping for a rather stronger condemnation of religion's political effects to follow the historical survey. I was disappointed, but it's pretty short, so not for long.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Twelfth Grade Kills

by Heather Brewer

Finally! The last installment in the Chronicles of Vladimir Tod is out, so I can at last be released from this terrible writer's clutches.

Reading this book was very frustrating and resulted in much moaning aloud, even at one point a powerful urge to throw the book out the window. I really wasn't prepared for this one being even more poorly written than the first four books, but there are major continuity problems, excessive melodrama, sheer stupidity, irritating cuteness, predictable plot, unsurprising (and poorly executed) surprise ending, and many more pulp fiction horrors. But I had to read it, you know?

None of this series is well-written, but somehow it was easier to overlook in the first two or three books. The depth of badness to which the fifth book has sunk is making me question my enjoyment of the earlier volumes. Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure I was on heavy duty, post-wisdom-teeth-extraction painkillers when I read the first book. Oh, well, it's over now, and I survived.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A fifth of zines

At Home on the Earth, by Brian Oaster
This mini-comic presents a tragic you-can't-go-home-again tale of interstellar/time travel and environmental forewarning — sounds as if it's sad, but both the story and the drawing style offer hope in the form of childlike innocence and optimism.

Paper Birds: Styrofoam Flowers, by Christopher Brandon Arendt
Recollections and political musings from a former Guantanamo guard, unfortunately (or is it mercifully?) sketchy but still provocative.

Cool Things About My Exes that Mean Nothing, by Becky Morton and friends
Being a four-letter word, I suppose "cool" can mean weird, awesome, tragic, unique, embarrassing, horrible, special.... and anyway, whether good, bad or ugly, the cavalcade of former lovers is always a comedy goldmine.

Brazilianoir, by Emily Stackhouse and Nicholas Shahan
Stolen camera, trans-Atlantic cruise, spies and sex-pots. I think this is only the beginning of a longer story, which leaves it feeling too sketchy, but there's potential for something solid to develop.

Two Truths in Food Presents: A Double Scoop of Mendacity, by David Beller
A collection of real news articles about food and the food industry — some disgusting, some sad, some infuriating, all outrageous — that you'll have to pretend aren't true in order to eat anything ever again.

Ilse Content #7, by Alexis Wolf
Read these stories about oddball relatives, and you'll feel like part of the family. Great writing and presentation give it that je ne sais quois of engaging perzines and memoirs.

Diary of a Metal Girl: selected writings & illustrations, 1985-1989, by Jen Sbragia
You don't have to have a head-banging past to appreciate these selected journal entries. Big hair, loud music and tight acid-wash jeans are just the particulars that spice up this universal tale of teen angst and self-discovery, dotted with moments of hilarity. Heavy metal meets John Hughes?

Intrepid Girl Reporter, by Jessica Abel
It's a darn good thing the drawing is precise, because this mini-comic is dense as hell. Lots of words and tiny but well-detailed illustrations about the author's endeavors in journalism.

I Like Girls, by Erika Moen
I recall this being a fairly cute coming-out story about a baby-dyke finding the courage to tell her mom she has a girlfriend. And her brother turns out gay too, I think.

Picaresque #9, by Brendan Rocks
Despite some pagination issues, I really enjoyed this laugh-out-loud funny piece of work, which is a collection of vignettes about people and events from back in the day, high school or middle school or whatever, that are hilarious even though you don't know the people in them.

Black Giraffe #2, by Brandon Freels
A surreal anarcho-Communist art/dream manifesto? While not totally inscrutable, it's definitely hard to pin down, but at least it's short.

In the Tall Grass #3, by Tessa Brunton
An unmemorable (for me) collection of autobiographical girly comics. Not girly in a bad way, just very gynocentric (not in an anatomical way).

Make Something! an Anthology of Portland Zinesters, edited by Greig Means
Not just a zinesters mecca, Portland is D.I.Y.-to-die-for as well, and this compilation is the natural result. At the moment, I can't remember any of the specific projects, but I kinda remember being jazzed about D.I.'ing some things myself.

Nine Gallons: True Stories, by Susie Cagel
A comic about the author's experience working with Food Not Bombs, with some background info about the organization on the last page. I had some friends who were into the group, and we all jokingly called it Food Not Flies.

Sing Along Forever: a love letter to the Bouncing Souls, by Liz Baillie
Liz's enthusiasm is infectious, making it irrelevant that you might have no idea who the Bouncing Souls are. For me, personally, it also helped that in the grainy, photocopied black-and-white photos, band member Bryan is possibly hot.

Tales of Blarg! #9, by Janelle Hessig
Comix, notes, stories, doodles and other punk weirdness and awesomeness, with really great chapter headings, such as "Ugly people I wanna do it to", "Hipster vs. crusty", and "A pig in shit (a guide to good stuff)". Very fun and entertaining.

Burn Collector#13, by Al Burian
This classic perzine has moments of real eloquence: "the Italians look to the ruins, shrug their shoulders, and recognize Berlusconi as a blip on the screen. He'll be gone soon. Nero was worse." On the other hand, the author is anti-capitalist/globalism but flies (guiltily) to Europe; and he references Guy de Bord, but at times sounds rather Randian. There's also a nice riff on "life is art," so what the hell is reality TV?

The CIA makes science fiction unexciting. #2 : chemical biological weapons, CIA documents about the AIDS virus, & "cures" killing faster than AIDS!
This is part of a series of "CIA makes..." zines put out by Microcosm Publishing. I haven't read the others closely enough to question their factual foundations, but, though I was wary of this one at first, I was willing to give it a chance. I mean, cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs is a valid viewpoint, right? It's got some editing issues and definite conspiracy bent, but it's not as bad as some stuff I've read about HIV, not quite outright lies, just the usual paranoid connecting of dots that aren't related, leaping to conclusions and filling in gaps with wild surmises. Questioning the official narrative is fine, but there's real danger and lives on the line, so tread carefully.

Cometbus #53, by Aaron Cometbus
Cometbus is a classic for sure. It's so hard to describe what makes a good perzine... some writers are just good writers and it's a pleasure to read anything they write, and some people have a way of making you feel close even though you've never met.

The Indifference of Places, by Carolee Gilligan Wheeler
As I age, travel loses some of its appeal — unless I can stay in a fancy hotel. But anyone can relate to this recounting of a trip to/from hell. Bad weather, weird food, the whole nine.

Welcome to Bend #1, by Laura Walker
A precious little illustrated zine, gloriously oddly constructed, with tidbits and triva about that surprising big city-town in the middle of our lovely state.

Sadist Science Teacher, by Kelly Froh
I love Kelly's comics of oddballs and misfits (often family members), but this one felt a little subpar. Oh, well, can't be full-force all the time.

Publick Occurances #12, by Danny Martin
A tiny zine with tiny, heavily inked, almost lino-cut or block-print looking portraits of many heavy metal superstars. Hard to explain, but I could stare at it for ages and ages! Especially impressive is the artist's talent drawing hair, which is well-exercised with these musicians. It was also fun guessing who they are and checking with the answer-key in the back.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Still Life: adventures in taxidermy

by Melissa Milgrom

I was going to complain about finding "Bilboa" where it should have said "Bilbao," but it's been too long since I read this book for me to muster the necessary indignation, or to recall why this particular mistake was the straw that broke my back, or if it was emblematic of some steadier thread of idiocy.

Thinking about it now, I just recall an informative, entertaining and reasonably well written book about the history of taxidermy (curiosity cabinets, natural history museums, etc.) and the contemporary culture of artistic animal preservation. I didn't care much for the chapter about the woman who does dead animals for Damien Hirst, mostly because I think he's a hack; the woman in question is actually quite an interesting character in her way. The book presents a fair number of additional oddballs and plenty of bizarre historical details. (If you happen to be at an estate sale and see a diorama of stuffed kittens in an old-fashioned schoolroom, or some similar freakishness, buy it for me and I'll pay you back!)

Not a great book, but solid. If you read voraciously, go for it. If you're only going to read a few books this year, you can do better.

Nurtureshock: new thinking about children

by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

This is absolutely not a parenting book. There's plenty in it to interest parents (and a big notes and references section to point the way to more details), but it's probably more interesting for someone not in the midst of raising a child. I say this because the book is a whirlwind tour of the most intriguing tidbits culled from recent scholarship on child development and psychology. Although thoroughly researched, it's quite superficial and kind of sensationalistic, so it might make parents freak out and feel overwhelmed.

Which is ironic, since the authors opine in the introduction that news media tend to present current research and discoveries as infotainment and fail to provide sufficient context or follow up. They also make a big deal about the false assumptions and misleading instincts we adults have about child psychology and neurological development and learning, etc. Seeing through or beyond those prejudices was the key to most of the "new thinking" presented in the book, they say. Because they're presenting so many stunning insights so rapidly and shallowly, it would be all to easy to forget their caveats and leap to unfounded conclusions, turning these seemingly counter-intuitive ideas into the new false assumptions. It's not a huge criticism, in the end, because I found the book enjoyable, interesting and easy to read. Ultimately, I think, it's down to the fact that the book is more a collection of articles (they're magazine writers by trade), and in any case written for an educated but not necessarily statistically savvy or scientifically inclined audience.

Anyway, a few morsels to whet your appetite: praise can backfire, lying is a sign of intelligence (kids) and respect (teens), educational television programs can teach more bad lessons than good, and kids who seem "gifted" at 3 are quite likely to be ordinary five years later.

Bleak House

by Charles Dickens

Wow-wow-wow-wow-WOW! I can't believe how good this book is. I've read some other Dickens, including the obligatory A Tale of Two Cities in high school, but I wasn't able truly to appreciate the genius of Dickens until adulthood.

I think it's important to want to read Dickens, because if you don't, and you read it lazily or quickly or superficially — the way I did most of the books I read for high school, and even college — you miss so much just in the simple facts of the plot, let alone the more intricate details. I mean, how did I manage to "read" every single word in A Tale of Two Cities and then immediately afterward fail to recognize names of characters or major plot points? Sloppy, careless reading, that's how.

Now that I'm older and I have more patience, I'm not only able but also enjoy being able to read closely and to savor the challenge of Victorian grammar and circuitous tact. The perfect example, one that I shared with several people while still reading this book, is when one of the characters dies of spontaneous combustion: if you weren't paying attention, you could breeze right through the four-sentence paragraph explaining it and only realize half a page later that something important happened that you totally missed. It's an important event in terms of the plot, but also by its very nature — spontaneous freakin' combustion! — and yet Dickens' description seems restrained and ambiguous to a modern reader accustomed to straightforward language and artless fiction.

Like most of Dickens' novels, Bleak House is a social critique (lambasting, in this case, the legal system), but it's also a suspenseful mystery and a love story (or several love stories, technically). It's also widely regarded as Dickens' most mature work, whatever that's supposed to mean. After reading the novel, I read both the introduction to this edition and the appendicized G.K. Chesterton intro to an earlier addition. Both agreed about the supposed maturity of the work, but for rather different reasons. Either way, this is one gee-dee fantastic book. Two plot twists made me gasp out loud, and at several points I had to cover the pages to stop myself from skipping ahead — it's that good. (Tempting to put it in the Top 10...)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Maze Runner

by James Dashner

Oh, damn bloody hell! This excellent young adult book is the first of a planned trilogy; the second book might be out in October, but my library doesn't appear to have it on order yet. I dare say it's very close to almost as good as The Hunger Games, and finishing it certainly gave me similar feelings of elation laced with frustration, despair and impatience.

I heard about it in a short article about teen dystopian fiction in the June 14, 2010, issue of the New Yorker. It's an interesting article comparing/contrasting adult and young adult literary dystopias (dystopiae?), and it mentions The Hunger Games, of course, and several other books I decided to read based on what it said about them. This is the first of those that I've read. It's exciting, filled with danger and death, combining elements of Hunger Games, Ender's Game, 13 Monkeys, in a wrapping of fresh mystery and cruel unknowing: memory wiped, a young man wakes in the center of huge maze that changes every night, as yet unsolved by the 40-some young men already trapped there. Oh, and there's scary mechanized creatures that mostly come at night, mostly.

Just as a side note, I think the author might be Mormon. A page on the website for the book has a link to a profile of him in the Deseret News, a Mormon newspaper. Interesting, since Orson Scott Card (author of Ender's Game) is Mormon, as is Stephenie Meyer (Twilight series). Wonder if Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) is too?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Eleventh Grade Burns

by Heather Brewer

I've never read any of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, and I think the movies so far are pretty hilarious (though unintentionally so), but I'm glad I haven't invested a lot of energy in mocking Twi-hards. Because this series is my Twilight. Having read the third book, I'm no longer capable of objectively assessing the writing. I'm too wrapped up in the story and blindly loyal to the protagonist, young half-vampire-half-human Vladimir Tod.

The next book is supposed to come out in September, but as far as I can see my library doesn't have it on-order yet. I'll just die if they don't get it!

The Kingdom of Ohio

by Matthew Flaming

Grrrr. This book was annoying. It didn't deliver much on the transdimensional time travel angle that made me interested in it in the first place. Yes, time travel occurred — or did it?! — but it didn't really make sense and wound up feeling romantic and New Age-y, a bit in the vein of Nicholas Sparks (who makes me gag). It's not that I expected hard science fiction, but it came so close to an explanation that comports with known physical laws, and then it just crapped out like a middle schooler's attempt at suspense that ends with "and then I woke up."

It's not terrible, I just didn't like it, but I can see how others might. Personally, though, I don't know why I even read the whole thing.

Antique Bakery, vols. 1-4

by Fumi Yoshinaga

I've praised the work of this author previously (here), and I have to say this series totally delivers! And lots of other people must like it too, because it's also been made into a television series in Japan and a movie in Korea. It combines great storytelling with beautifuly soft and stylish illustration, and the characters are intriguing and well-developed.

A fancy patisserie owned by a lower-middle-aged former businessman — who, as a child, was abducted and held captive and fed cake for several weeks before escaping — is the setting and back-story. A bit of a ladies' man, he's very suave and attractive but ultimately unlucky in love. One of the other characters, a young former boxer apprenticed to the head pastry chef, calls him "geezer," but the age difference is barely noticeable in the illustrations. The main visual cue that sets him apart is his subtle stubble.

Rather unassuming, maybe even slightly geeky at first glance, the incredibly talented head pastry chef is frequently referred to as "a gay of demonic charm," due to his siren-like ability to seduce anyone who comes near, be they gay or straight, male or female. Somewhat unusual for yaoi manga, he came to terms with his homosexuality in high school and since then has been about as "out" as he can be within the weird borders of Japanese culture. There is, however, one person impervious — actually, more like oblivious to his charms: the fourth employee of the bakery is very tall, quite dopey and, since childhood, fiercely loyal to the owner.

It's easy to see why this became a TV show, with it's underlying story and episodic story arcs. The series doesn't include any actual sex that I can remember, but it definitely includes frank discussion of sexual themes, so it's PG-13 for sure. (On the cover, it's rated "mature, for 18+".)

Monday, May 24, 2010

War by Candlelight

by Daniel Alarcón

There was a time when I read a lot of short stories. Not sure why I stopped. I recently took a look at The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, but it's super long and a bunch of other people had it on hold. I did read a few stories, and those I read were quite good, but one can't just plow through a collection of short stories the way one can plow through a novel (or even really good creative nonfiction). Sometimes a bit of space is needed between stories.

Even in a collection whose stories are thematically (if loosely) linked — such as this collection by Peruvian-born, Alabama-raised author Daniel Alarcón — I like to relax a bit after finishing a story, before plunging into the next one. And stalling is pretty much what I'm doing now, not because I disliked this book, but because I wasn't really moved by it. Could be a case of me getting older and [shudder] more conservative, and not identifying with the "voice of the oppressed" as easily as when I was young and idealistic (and narcissistic); or maybe tragedy fatigue has gotten to me, and the million major catastrophes underway at any given moment have made me insensitive to the thousand little tragedies of everyday life in an impoverished city; or perhaps this collection of stories isn't so great. Or maybe I just didn't like it. It's okay not to like stuff.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Chocolate War

by Robert Cormier

Sometimes I read a classic and think, "Seriously?!" This is a fantastic book, though, and it deserves to be a classic of young adult literature. It's a bit controversial and over the years has been challenged (as the American Library Association calls it when some wingnut tries to have a book removed from a library or school curriculum), but, as anyone with sense can realize, the bits to which censors object are often the very same parts that make the book challenging and edifying to read. In this case, the story includes violence and bullying, as well as some sexual references. I wonder, though, if some of the haters are actually more disturbed by the way the adults are portrayed as mostly disinterested and, in one major character, frankly despicable.

Bottom line: this book is good enough that I read the whole thing in one day — and then watched the movie version a couple hours later. In addition to being a freakin' amazing late '80s time capsule (the main character is the same actor who played Wyatt in Weird Science, and the clothes! and the music!), the film does a good job capturing the characters' complexities. As movies often do, however, it kind of butchers the ending; I don't know what I'd have thought of the ending if I hadn't just read the book that day, but it barely made sense to me compared to the original ending.

In the Fold

by Rachel Cusk

A darkly comical British domestic drama with sharply drawn characters, this book is a real pleasure to read. I'm really impressed by the grammar — how many writers manage not to end a sentence with a preposition without sounding awkward? — but the greater source of enjoyment is the odd comfort that flows from the absurdity of social relations and the asininity of relatives. The story is also sort of a comedy of manners, in the sense that politeness, for the British upper and upper-middle classes, is not (as it is for Americans) about doing the right thing but about seeming unperturbed and unconcerned with other people's and even one's own misbehaviors. The author offers a more modern version, as well, of the classic stiff upper lip in the form of a suburban conformity and complacency that somehow comes off as charming, at least in contrast with the obvious sociopathy of the putatively self-actualized characters.

Am I telling you anything that will make you want to read this book? It's not easy to do with books such as this one. The comparison that comes quickest to mind is Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother, or perhaps All Families Are Psychotic by Douglad Coupland.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Be Near Me

by Andrew O'Hagan

After a slow start, this haunting book really pulls the reader into the morass of the protagonist's existential angst. Which sounds bad, but it can be delicious agony when executed properly. In part because of the hint of intergenerational romance, but mostly because of the emotional timbre of desperate yearning, Be Near Me reminds me of Call Me by Your Name. The skillful vivisection of a mind twisted by self-alienation puts me in mind of novels by Edward St. Aubyn, and likewise reminds one of the raw and unflinching interiority of Virginia Woolf's best work.

This book would stand up to re-reading in the future, and the writing is that sort which induces repeated re-reading and relishing of particular passages. I almost don't want to tell you the story is about a Scottish priest, for fear it will put you off as it nearly did me. His being a priest is somehow essential and immaterial at the same time, such that there's little enough religion and very little that a religious adherent would recognize as spiritual.

Like a cigarette (according to Oscar Wilde), it is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied. This book would be a serious contender for Top 10 status, but 10 is such a small number compared to the millions of books in the world and the thousands I've read; without diminishing it's greatness, I think it's more likely in a four-way tie for a rank in the upper teens or twenties.

The Tyranny of E-mail: the four-thousand-year journey to your inbox

by John Freeman

A disappointing and frustrating book, but it could have been so great!

Biggest problem is that it's not well-edited. Freeman seems at times to want to write like Alain de Botton (The Architecture of Happiness), and he's not so far off the mark, but better editing would have helped. It also could have addressed some of the larger structural issues. For example, the "four-thousand-year journey to your inbox" has no depth until the most recent few hundred years, and the last two chapters feel tacked-on and completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the book. The occasional brilliant sentences and insights only draw more attention to the unevenness and shortcomings of the whole.

I agree with many of the book's criticisms of e-mail and the cult(ure) of gadgetry, the myth of the global village and the failures of technology. I quickly grew weary, however, of the Chicken Little-ing and the constant use of "we" when describing the extreme rather than the common or average. No more than a few pages are devoted to the digital divide, even though there are at least four divides — generational, temperamental, socio-economic, geographic — that could have been explored.

Do I regret reading this book? No, but I didn't learn much and I don't feel particularly enriched by the experience.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs

by Irvine Welsh

If you like Chuck Palahniuk.... I actually haven't read much Chuck, and I've only seen the movie of Trainspotting, but this book has me convinced that Palahniuk and Welsh, both being laddish versions of Douglas Coupland, could have a fair amount of fans in common. Bedroom Secrets is a gripping narrative of unexpected — one is tempted to say spiritual, or, perhaps for machismo's sake, supernatural — connections, although the final twist is too inevitable to be surprising. (Or is the reader too jaded to be surprised?) The real surprise, the real charm of this book is not in the plot, rather it's the way the author manipulates the reader's affection and loyalty for the co-protagonists against the grain and in opposition to their evolving relationship. As it's a bullying relationship, finding oneself despising the victim can be an awkward experience; that disorientation, though, is what this book is ultimately all about.

The Confession

by James E. McGreevey

It doesn't matter that I read this memoir by former Mayor McGay of New Jersey several years after his scandalous — and simultaneously, strangely, inspirational — coming out and resignation. I didn't want to read it for salacious gossip and voyeuristic thrills. What fascinated me, and what McGreevey's done a great job of expressing, is the phenomenon of closetedness. In this particular case, the author's political career, public persona and accompanying media attention lend an emphasis or increased contrast to the psychological drama, but the dynamics of denial and self-loathing, of craving and indulgence and shame, are the same as for any person living a life at odds with an essential part of his or her identity.

Kids today publicly self-identify as queer at younger ages than did gays and lesbians of even one generation earlier. Despite newsworthy examples to the contrary, they are more frequently and more easily accepted by their peer groups. My own coming out experience wasn't particularly traumatizing or dramatic, in part because my understanding of my orientation and all its implications was gradual rather than sudden. I don't remember consciously feeling closeted or ashamed, and no one rejected me, but some of what McGreevey has written has cast new light on certain faded recollections. In any case, it's hard enough for me, just 16 years younger than the author, to imagine the difficulties of being homosexual in an earlier era, the fear of being outcast and the temptation of clinging to conformity. Imagine how much harder it is, and will continue to become, for younger homos who ever more readily find acceptance. The experience of the closet is an important part of social history and collective remembrance, and Jim McGreevey's eloquent and honest memoir is a significant contribution to its preservation.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Veil of Gold

by Kim Wilkins

I somehow got it in my mind this book is by a Russian author, which is (I thought) why I wanted to read it, but turns out she's Australian and it's just the story that's set in Russia. Had it on my to-read list for ages and, when I finally got around to it, found it not stellar but definitely a good read. It's a nicely layered combination of suspense and fantasy with historical referents, magic and Russian folklore, and a background love interest. It's pretty good, like I said, but I don't have much to say about it for some reason. Could be an enjoyable beach book, but don't forget to turn over periodically.

Warped Passages: unraveling the mysteries of the Universe's hidden dimensions

by Lisa Randall

This book made my brain hurt, in a good way. Took a while to read it, because I found it tough to read for longer stretches, but I've always loved the crazy science of particle physics. As if strange and charmed quarks, antiparticles and virtual particles weren't enough, this book tries to explain the extra dimensions that are required for string theory — and it turns out the extra dimensions are handy solutions even if string theory turns out not to be correct.

All the real math is in the notes at the end, so don't fear. The author does a good job of using analogies and diagrams to guide you through the process of imagining extra dimensions, and it really does come down to a feat of imagination. Extra dimensions could be wrapped up so tinily that they're functionally undetectable, or it could be their infinitude that makes them un-observable. Either way, they aren't directions per se, like our usual three spatial dimensions, or even like the fourth dimension of time, but they should at some point have measurable effects on particle collider experiments.

I'm not going to try to summarize any of the stuff in the book, but if you like this kind of stuff, you'll totally dig this book. I geeked out so hard that I took notes and at one point fretted over whether I'd be able to e-mail the author and ask her questions. I can't claim complete understanding (I especially have trouble with quantum field theory and virtual particles), and I'll be damned if I can properly explain it to anyone else, but I really hope some cool shit happens when the Large Hadron Collider is at full power!

Just for yuks, here's a link to a website with a grid of spinning Calabi-Yau manifolds, which is one possible shape for extremely tiny rolled up dimensions.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Maybe I'm Your Steppin' Stone: Loveliness

by Shiuko Kano

Hellz, yeah! In this super-sexy sequel to I'm Not Your Steppin' Stone, one of my favorite yaoi authors delivers the goods. The stories are pretty easy to follow, and the pretty boys are easy on the eyes. This is the more explicit end of yaoi, with lots of steamy scenes, plenty of grunting and groaning, and nothing left to the imagination. Yowza!

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Night of Your Life

by Jesse Reklaw

A dazzling collection of Jesse Reklaw's "Slow Wave" comics, retelling real dreams in four panels. With endless possibilities and the natural bizarreness of dreams, they run the gamut from funny to eerie and you-name-it. This is a really great book to read while drifting off to sleep, although I must sadly report not remembering any interesting dreams of my own on the nights I fell asleep with this book in my hands.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Yellow 1

by Makoto Tateno

Mail vol. 1

by Housui Yamazaki

I had high hopes for Yellow, which is by a very popular yaoi author, who also wrote the Hero Heel series, which I enjoyed (and about which I wrote here). I was quite disappointed by this jumbled and confusing story line about extra-legal drug snatchers, one hetero and one gay. Sadly, thumbs down.

Mail also is disappointing. It's somewhat similar to, but nowhere near as good as, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (reviewed here), kind of like when there's a good movie or TV show and then a bunch of lame imitations that go straight to DVD or get cancelled after half a season. The series is about a guy who can see ghosts and has a "spirit gun" to put tortured souls to rest.

Getting the Girl: a guide to private investigation, surveillance, and cookery

by Susan Juby

I absolutely loved this book. So many young adult novels are about girls, when I find one with a really great boy character it makes me quite happy, especially if he's short (like me) and cute (if I may be so humble). The boy in this book is very charming, confident, smart-assed and convincingly boy-ish, despite having been written by a lady author. (Huzzah, to you, Susan Juby!)

It's also nice to read a YA book that's not about personal tragedy but is about a reasonably well-adjusted kid who's concerned about the social tragedies of others and the unfairness of high school clique-ery, and who's aware of the many charms of young women who aren't skinny mean girls and also aren't soon-to-be-swanlike ugly ducklings.

Finally, it's Canadian, which is almost as good as being British.

The Year of Secret Assignments

by Jaclyn Moriarty

I nearly checked this out the first time I saw it... then about a year later a friend recommended it... then another year went by before I actually checked it out... then another year went by before I read it. When I finally did, I got a little nervous about the multiple-narrators thing, but I actually liked all the characters. It's a good and interesting story, told primarily via letters and journal entries, with well-developed girl and boy characters, though the girls get more ink. There's tension and mystery, and there's romance but it's not too much dwelt upon. As well there are cute Australian boys and sassy Australian girls, but no wombats or joeys. I give it an 8 out of 10, keeping in mind that I'm very stingy with 10s.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Naming Nature: the clash between instinct and science

by Carol Kaesuk Yoon

I found this book very frustrating, and I actually didn't finish it. I skimmed parts, but I was still committed to seeing it through — and then I just couldn't stand it any more and gave up about 10 pages from the end. I was hoping the book would have more info on the ways different cultures name, classify and organize the living world. Although that was part of the author's original concept, it apparently fell by the wayside when she picked up the science vs. instinct theme.

The history of scientific classification of the living world is interesting enough for a nerd such as myself, and for sure there are some intriguing connections and conclusions to be drawn from the comparison of functional, pragmatic, amateur, "natural" or "native" classification to the increasingly abstract-seeming minutiae of truly scientific evolutionary classification based on genetics and molecular biology. It is my opinion, however, that the author is exaggerating both the violence and importance of this supposed clash of worldviews. Even to use the word clash is perhaps overblown. And the whole thing about fish not existing is pure claptrap.

I look at it as being a bit like language: anyone, given the right education, can operate in at least two modes of speaking, formal and informal; lean too far to one side, and the other may suffer for that individual, but it hardly rocks the very foundations of language or imperils our aggregate ability to communicate. Scientists may insist that "fish" isn't, in some technical way, a valid evolutionary category, but the rest of us (even those of us who know what the scientists are saying) have a perfectly functional idea of "fish" and suffer no doubts about it; put all your roe in one broodpouch and maybe the other will suffer, but, in the vast majority of situations an ordinary person is likely to encounter, the two can co-exist quite peacefully.

The Archimedes Codex: how a medieval prayer book is revealing the true genius of antiquity's greatest scientist

by Reviel Netz and William Noel

Seems like a total nerd book, and I've never denied being a nerd, but I'd really like to believe that non-nerds would enjoy this book too. It's surprisingly well-written, considering neither author has a (non-academic) writing background. Even though I'm a nerd, I'm not particularly interested in antique books, cutting-edge imaging technology or maths, but the two writers did a good job of conveying the excitement and importance of both discovering and decoding an unknown manuscript and of revealing the breadth and extent of previously unrecognized ancient knowledge.

It's amazing that these treatises could be recovered (partially, at least) after so many years and mistreatment, and it's equally flabbergasting to realize that way back in B.C. days Archimedes was on the verge of inventing calculus, which, after his demise and the loss of much of his work, didn't come to fruition for almost two millennia. Especially astounding in light of the fact that virtually all modern science and technology wouldn't be possible without calculus. What could the world be like if we'd had that 2,000 year head start?

Twelve Long Months

by Brian Malloy

It is very important to mention that fag hags are, in many ways, essential to gay culture and particularly necessary for the support and nurturing of baby-gays. Having acknowledged that, however, it's also important to be aware of the potential emotional pitfalls of the fag-and-hag relationship, including but not limited to: the hag who loves her fag too much, and the fag who relies too much on his hag and takes advantage of her generosity. This book isn't quite about either of those scenarios, but it does brush up against them both. It mostly deals with the related issue of the straight girl who isn't really a fag hag but does have a tendency to date closeted gay guys who later come out of the closet and break her heart.

Are those sort of girls the audience for this book? I don't know that it would be very interesting for a gay male, teen or otherwise, and I don't see it appealing a whole lot to the average hetero teen girl either. It isn't terrible, and it does hit all the usual young adult relationship buttons (romance, neglected friends, heartbreak, re-affirmed friendships), but overall it's just...kinda...meh.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Everybody into the Pool: true tales

by Beth Lisick

I really loved this author's 2008 book, Helping Me Help Myself, because I really connected with her sense of humor. Published in 2005, this one is, I think, her first book, and it just isn't as good. Not totally disappointing, but not as many laugh-out-loud moments for me. It's more of a Sedaris-style collection of stories/essays/recollections of family and social life, whereas the other has a unifying theme of trying out different self-help regimens — but I don't think that's the pivotal difference. The 2008 book probably had better editing, and even a few years can do a lot to polish a writer's voice. Also, maybe she just works better with some structure.

Not a bad book, but not super. Easy and quick enough to read, though, and good enough to recommend to people who are really into the Sedarises, Chelsea Handler, etc., and that sort of snarky and sarcastic observational humor.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Book of Dead Philosophers

by Simon Critchley

Cicero said, "To philosophize is to learn how to die," so why not compile a book of the deaths of philosophers through the ages. The sentiment — not universal but far from uncommon among such folk, particularly the ancients — has some connection with the (also ancient) notion that no one can be judged happy or to have lived a good life until s/he has died. And such a compendium as Critchley has assembled is itself a memento mori.

It's also a great book, surprisingly entertaining, something that will stand up to multiple readings, and a book I actually want to own. (As I've mentioned before, wanting to own a book is a big deal for me, and I've only bought four or five books during the ten years I've been working in a library.)

So, why a memento mori? Critchley believes that fear of death — including but not limited to: fear of non-being; fear of the afterlife or reincarnation; fear of dying painfully or alone; fear of not having lived a good/long/satisfying/meaningful enough life — has a negative impact on our lives while we are living them. Fear of death, he argues, must be confronted and overcome, so thinking about death is to be encouraged rather than avoided. We can be aided in this endeavor not only by philosophers' ideas about death but also by the particular circumstances of their deaths, and the harmony, or lack thereof, between the two.

The author includes more women than most people ever imagined were philosophers, and he also gets in some non-Western guys. No living philosophers, of course, but some who've died within recent memory. Most of the entries don't fully explain the individual philosophers' schticks, but some do give an overview — and in either case there's definitely fodder for future trivia games.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tab Hunter Confidential: the making of a movie star

by Tab Hunter, with Eddie Muller

I saw this book when it was brand new, and my interested was piqued* — I mean, super hot movie star teen heartthrob guy that turned out to be a homo, what's not to like? But it was a couple years before I actually checked it out and got around to reading it.

It's pretty much what you'd expect. Nothing scandalous, no "reveals" or outings of other actors or confessions of debauchery, but pretty interesting in places, especially when he's writing about his early career under the old-Hollywood studio system of exclusive contracts. The book is maybe a tad long for a celebrity autobiography, but at the same time it gets sketchier and sketcher toward the end, as if the author(s) were rushing to meet a deadline or were themselves losing interest. I still give it decent marks overall, and, given the circumstances (hetero sex symbol who's secretly gay), I think it's actually a plus, rather than a minus, that there's much more weight given to Hunter's professional ambitions/frustrations and his personal feelings than to insider gossip and sassy zingers.

The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger

by Cecil Brown

I didn't know much about this book or its author, but I picked it up because it seemed as if it might be some sort of bridge between the more intellectual and literary work of people such as Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead and the supposed gritty urban "real"-ism of the gangsters-drugs-money-bling-and-sex novels that are so popular these days.

Skimming the introduction and preface, I saw that — despite the words in its title and some of the language inside — it got positive reviews in fairly conservative Time magazine and the Sunday Review of Books. Those reviews (and others, I'm sure) cited the book's exploration and deconstruction (my word, not theirs) of black male identity and myths of black male masculinity and virility, making requisite (inevitable?) comparisons to Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man.

Throughout the majority of the book, I was thinking it didn't seem to be measuring up to the comparison. Toward the end it started getting interesting, however, and I was especially excited to read a quote that put me in mind of one of my favorite passages in one of my favorite books of all time, Toni Morrison's Sula:

"The black lover was a true warrior, a true soldier who is doomed, cursed, to fighting a perpetual battle with an elusive enemy, and with the foreknowledge that he can never be the victor, and fighting every day with this foreknowledge that he can never be the victor makes him victorious every moment of his life. His only security being in knowing that, as a black man, there is no security. Not as long as the world is the way it is."
That last sentence fragment is a bit distracting, and it too easily gives away the hard-won victory, leaving power squarely in the hands of the Man rather than gathering the paradoxical power of having nothing left to lose. (Nod to Janis Joplin.) But still, things were getting meaty, and I was still excited, even though it was obvious by this point that the good stuff was all crammed into the last 20 pages.... Alas, the philosophizing was coming thick and heavy — too heavy, and too explicit. The characters were actually saying the things that the reader ought to be inferring from their actions or from narrative hints and nudges.

All the ingredients are present, but the final result is lacking finesse. Also, there's a noticeable streak of misogyny and homophobia, which isn't surprising but is still disappointing, especially considering that the author had made the acquaintance of some very notable gay and/or female African American expatriates.

Rock On

by Dan Kennedy

Had this checked out a long time, then I heard the author on the radio (Fresh Air probably) and finally got around to reading it. No danger of literary prizes, but a perfectly fine book, funny, entertaining, smooth. A great book, in fact, for a vacation. It's one of those workplace/wacky-life memoirs in the vein of Working Stiff and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, written by a guy who falls into his dream job working (or hardly working) for a record company marketing department; hilarity ensues, while the record industry collapses around him.