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.