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.