Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark

by Mary Wollstonecraft

I read about this in a zine, Hyena in Petticoats, about M.W. and the zine author's obsession with her. I suppose it helps that I used A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a major source for a college paper ("Teaching Madness," about the fate of well-educated young women in a society unprepared to accept them). Anyway, Wollstonecraft was a feminist pioneer, a real piece of work, and totally ahead of her time (and yet, being only human, she went a bit bonkers over a married man).

We think of Scandinavia as so civilized these days — maybe even more civilized, in some ways, than the rest of Europe and North America — so it's interesting to read an old-timey English woman's thoughts on traveling in what was then the wild, barbarian north. It's also quite interesting to consider how a generally progressive intellectual can still be so totally backwards in some ways. Makes one wonder what the future will find lacking in today's liberalism.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

by Patton Oswalt

For a guy who usually plays the minor character that's the schlubby butt of jokes, this dude is super smart. So smart, at times, that you can almost miss the humor. I'd say he's more of a Sarah Vowell than a David Sedaris: you get the guffaws, but with seriously introspective interludes. One gets the sense that his true calling is to write for shows that are critically acclaimed cult hits but unfortunately get canceled after a few seasons (eg., Arrested Development), rather than stand-up comedy. An enjoyable and easy read that could make you pee your pants, or wax nostalgic, or a bit of both.

Cold: adventures in the world's frozen places

 by Bill Streever

I love this kind of book (literary nonfiction), but this particular one is only a moderately good example of the genre. Nothing in particular is wrong with the author's informative and evocative exploration of coldness, combining thorough knowledge with pleasant story-telling, but it just isn't cream of the crop. I'll give it a solid B-minus.


The Strangest Man: the hidden life of Paul Dirac, mystic of the atom

by Graham Farmelo

Somehow I got the idea that this guy, like Alan Turing, a tortured genius of the same era, was gay. I kept waiting through the whole book for the big reveal. He certainly was awkward enough with women. Alas, no dice.

This would be a tricky book to recommend. As a biography, it's well-written and holds the attention, even while being quite long. The author provides good insight into the unspoken and the strange, of which there's plenty in the life of a mathematical savant who surely would be diagnosed on the "autism spectrum" in modern day. You get a good sense of the history and politics of nuclear science around WWII, and the author consistently connects Dirac's early training in engineering and technical drafting to his uniquely visual and instinctual approach to subatomic physics, a realm of almost pure theory and maths. Unless you find all those things interesting, you'll likely have trouble slogging through; if you do, you'll be in hog heaven.


Monday, March 28, 2011

Atlas of Remote Islands: fifty islands I have never set foot on and never will

by Judith Schalansky

Holy-moly this book is awesome! I love to geek out over maps, but I'm often frustrated by the clutteredness of a lot of modern atlases, with so many roads especially but also too many small towns and other unimportant things. I probably shouldn't post this on the internet and let someone steal the idea, but I'd love to make an atlas that only shows the interesting stuff, just what's relevant to history or politics, exceptional geographical features, etc. — which is really just a way to introduce the description of this Atlas of Remote Islands as just nearly the exact oppposite of that idea, in some ways, and precisely the same in others, but correspondingly and contrastingly equally awesome in its own way(s). Each map provides a wealth of detail, but not every detail, and the details it does provide are somewhat estoric or anecdotal, and always delightfully interesting. You can tell the author really treasures maps and put a lot of that love into this book. If you dig maps, you need to read this book, and maybe even own it. The book itself as an object is beautifully designed, a true pleasure to hold and to read. It's on a very short list of books I'm actually interested in buying and keeping forever.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Zine Post Six

Dixon Ticonderoga, by Stevan Allred
Sort of a paean to pencils, with texts by several authors and some illustrations. The analog realness and old-school-ness of zine and of pencils complement one another in this digital, virtual age.

Moira: a sneak preview, by Chelsea Baker
Very thorough science comic about Down Syndrome, inspired by the author's sister. The illustrations and text work together very well, and I particularly was struck by the sperm "factory" drawing.

Dangerous Aromas, Chapter 1, Beans and Ambition, by the Soft Sciences
Globe-trotting intrigue from the dank jungle to the highest echelons of competitive coffee roasting. Kind of odd, sometimes awkward dialogue, but also some funny bits.

McGriddle Defense, edited by Ryan Gratzer
"Selected short works about the breakfast sandwich" and a must-read for anyone who's succumbed to the temptation of droplets of syrup embedded in fat little pancakes that embrace egg and sausage like delectable parentheses. Includes a choose-your-own-adventure story.

Somnambulist #15, Martha Grover
Grover's long-running series has covered a lot of ground and includes many genres. This edition is a collection of "minutes" from family meetings she attended after moving back home for a while as an adult. Laugh out loud hilarious, but lots of pathos too.

Ride the Lightning, by John Isaacson
Comics interpretation of Metallica lyrics. I'm not a fan of heavy metal (though I do like the long-haired dudes), so it didn't do much for me, and I'm not totally comfortable judging.

Alien Boy: a zine about the life of James Chasse, by Erin Yanke & Icky A.
In one of my other postings of zine reviews I said I was trying to learn when to shut up, so I'm going to say only that this tribute to Chasse comes with a CD.

Beard Month 2010, by Greg Hinkle
Nominated for an award at Stumptown Comics Fest, but it seemed kind of unfocused to me. I had a beard when I read this one, but I'm kind of over beards now.

Colophons, or a note on the type, by Vanessa Gelvin
I can totally dork-out over typefaces (and explain the difference between a typeface and a font), and I've always thought that if I ever get published I'll insist my book include "a note on the type," so I loved this zine a lot.

Trigger No. 1, by Mike Bertino, edited by Dave Nuss
Pleasantly bizarre and trashy comics about bars, teachers that accidently pick up hookers, unicorns, and buttheads. And then a dreamlike one about chronic pain and confronting an abusive past.

A History of Humans Breathing Underwater: an educational zine, by Owen Curtsinger
Very informative, but I wish it were longer. It's small, with drawings and text. The title is quite clear, and you'll get what it promises.

You Are Here, [anthology]
If I'm remembering the right zine, this is a collection of maps and map-related musings by a variety of contributors in a variety of formats: a map of smells and garbage in San Francisco, parallels between Oakland and Paris, different moons in NoLa and Minnesota.

Biophile #2, The scientific method
Biophile #3, Eels, the magic and the mystery
A Pocket Guide to Evolution: a Biophile special
, [author unknown]
Teeny but lovely, all three are great examples of science zines. Possible best quote ever in the history of the world: "We can put a man on the moon, but we can't force eels to make babies."

The Malaise Trap, by Jack Bracken and Reid Psaltis
An amazing and beautiful comic about collecting and compulsion, purging and emptiness, and bugs. If it's not a true story, it should be.

She's So Unusual #1, Cyndi Lauper, [author unknown]
A tribute to our favorite she-bopper, this zine includes hair dyeing tips, a recipe for "True Colors" cupcakes, and other Lauper-esque projects. Volume 2 is about Joan Crawford and has instructions for crocheted wire hanger covers.

The Life and Death of the X-Ray Cafe (Oregon History Comics vol. 2), by Sarah Mirk I moved to Portland long enough ago to have seen the X-Ray Cafe, but I never went there. Mirk's series of comics about lesser-known aspects of Oregon history is a great idea and a big win.

Astronomiae Instauratae Grylli, by J. Horn
Sound science and effective story-telling in a mini-comic about a photon traversing the universe and very, very creative integration of words in and around the drawings, although occasionally hard to read as a result.

The Lou Reeder, by Corina Fastwolf
You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory, by Matt Monochrome
Musical memories, drawings, lists, even a crossword puzzle by a dynamic duo of extreme zine fame. (For the record, I did not do the puzzle and do not condone writing in library material; if you want to do the puzzle, make a photocopy or buy your own.)

Brains vol. 1, by Jesse Harrington
Three short stories about punks, skaters, skater-punks and the zombies they battle, and sometimes become. Zombies are the new pirates (as of a couple years ago), so dive in before something else becomes the new zombies.

Hyena in Petticoats: a Mary Wollstonecraft zine, by Alexis Wolf
An engaging biography of author, early feminista and liberated woman Mary Wollstonecraft, and her family, combined with a personal memoir of the zine author's immersion in all things related, including a pilgrimage to London.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Married to the Sea

 by Drew

Just stumbled across this little thing, a collection of old-timey illustrations with captions added to make them funny to a modern-day reader. As you'd expect, some are super-duper funny and others are duds, with most in between. Definitely worth flipping through if you're looking for some chuckles.


Yakuza in Love, vol. 1

 by Shiuko Kano

My favorite yaoi author hits it out of the park again! (Okay, well, maybe not the best this author has to offer, but still better than almost any other yaoi author I've read.) You can guess the general drift of the story from the title. Some characters are gay-gay, others are ambiguous, and the relationships haven't quite coalesced by the end of volume 1, but I sure am ready for the next book. (Sex scenes are medium-explicit, btw.)


Far Arden

by Kevin Cannon

Checked this out based on a review. It's a small, square, fat graphic novel that almost looks like a board book for babies, but in fact it's a relatively lengthy and sophisticated comics adventure that would probably be PG-13 if it were a movie. The title refers to a mythical (or is it real?) lost island in the Arctic; due to a quirk in the ocean and wind currents, it has a tropical micro-climate, so everyone's hunting for it. Abandoned children, evil geniuses, spies, broken hearts and long-held resentments are just part of the dramatic tension — some people are willing to kill to solve this mystery, and some people will die trying to uncover this secret.


Makeshift Metropolis: ideas about cities

 by Witold Rybczynski

I've always thought the best part of Sim City is laying out the streets and water lines, deciding where to put the airport and the city hall. Did you know you can sort of cheat and make the game let you do all the building and landscaping you want without having to pay and without turning on the clock? I could do that for days and days.... I also have a thing for architecture and design in general, so I very much enjoyed this book about city planning. It's amazing how much historical overview and analysis, theory and practice, speculation and suggesting the author crams into a rather short book. Engaging and easy to understand, informative but not pedantic, this book is a real pleasure to read.

The author lives and teaches in Philadelphia, so it was additionally gratifying for me to read the many references to my home city's history, architecture and design (even the bad examples).


Someday this Pain Will Be Useful to You

by Peter Cameron

Once upon a time I wrote a short story. It started from an idea that didn't include an ending, and I stalled out after a few weeks of working on it. Seven years later, I had a sudden insight about how to end the story, and I finally wrote the ending. Several people to whom I showed it said I should keep going, that they wanted to know what happens to the character next. I didn't think I could, and I never have — in part because it took me so long to find the ending, but also because the story is about emotional paralysis, so the tension and impetus is lost (and the story ends) when the character finally breaks his paralysis (or so I intended).

Point is, I never understood until now how frustrating it can be to read a book whose protagonist is emotionally paralyzed. I can't recall reading any other gay teen novels in which the character isn't either traumatized by being gay and coming out or so totally okay and confident that other people can't help but accept him. This book's anti(?)-hero is disengaged and distant from everyone, alienated even from himself. Sort of reminds me of me at that age.

Although it was frustrating in many ways, I ultimately liked this book. It's easy to see, however, the reasons it won't appeal to many readers. Being a young adult book, it's pretty short, so there's that at least.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Free for All: oddballs, geeks, and gangstas in the public library

by Don Borchert

Having worked in a public library for 10 years, I entertained but not surprised by the shenanigans related by the author, himself a longtime library employee. I was more amazed by how different to mine were his library's circulation policies. Either way, it's a pleasant romp and a quick read, and you don't need to be a public employee to enjoy it.

Imperial Bedrooms

by Bret Easton Ellis

This author is not for everyone, but he's one of my favorites. I was already a bit obsessed with the movie of Less than Zero when I read the book — which I loved so much I read it twice in one weekend. I've also read American Psycho (NOW alleged misogyny, but, hello, he's a psycho and kills dudes and dogs too), The Rules of Attraction (also a great movie, that totally changed my mind about James Van der Beek), and Lunar Park: all amazing. He's a writer who would be a role model for me if I ever got serious about writing.

This book tells the further misadventures of characters from Less than Zero, and it similarly catalogs the debauchery and neuroses of individuals (a reflection of their morally bankrupt society) and, by refraining from explicit commentary, mounts a sly indictment of our wealth- and image-obsessed culture. I find this author's work much deeper and more litererary than most casual readers would, and I have a bachelor's in English lit (just sayin'). I like how he's built a universe of reusable characters, but the characters aren't really exactly the same when he reuses them, and he also plays with the imaginary barrier between writer and character, writer and reader.

Having said all that, I wouldn't recommend this book to someone who isn't familiar with this author's work. For those who are, it's a must-read.

Mirroring people: the new science of how we connect with others

by Marco Iacoboni

This book is very science-y but not too technical. Also, don't read this if non-lethal neurological animal experimentation will upset you.

It's about the discovery and study of "mirror neurons," which discovery has implications for the study of communication via facial expression; autism spectrum disorders; learning and cognition; physical coordination and proprioception; to name a few. Basically, in addition to the neurons that fire when you actually do something (move your hand, for example) you also have a set of mirror neurons that go off when you think about moving your hand or see someone else moving their hand. In a sense, these neurons allow you to practice mentally various movements. In terms of empathy, they are a step beyond simply imagining another person's feelings because your brain is actually physically pretending to have the same emotions by mentally mimicking the other person's facial expressions and body language.

More to it, of course, but that's kind of the nutshell version. Very interesting and not too long, so no need to be intimidated by the science-ness.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Love Recipe #1

by Kirico Higashizato

I can't remember now if I've read the second one, so I just reserved it. As I recall, this series is cute and funny and a little bit sexy. One character is a new employee at a publishing company who gets stuck managing a male yaoi artist who is notorious for missing deadlines. The dashing and slightly older artist playfully attempts to extort sexual favors in return for finishing his work on time. Let the shenanigans commence!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters

by Louis Begley

Another book I didn't read in its entirety. I wanted to know more about the Dreyfus Affair (in which anti-Semitic prejudice led to a Jewish officer in the French military being convicted of treason in a sham trial and wrongfully imprisoned for many years), but I didn't realize the "why it matters" angle was going to relate the historical event to contemporary legal issues in the so-called war on terror. So the parts I read, about the incident itself, are actually more detailed than I needed, and the book lacks the larger historical perspective I wanted.

50 paintings you should know

by Kristina Lowis and Tamsin Pickeral

I grabbed this book because the host of my trivia night knows a lot of art history, so it sometimes comes up in the questions. I didn't read the whole thing, mostly scanned for names (of painters and of paintings) and tried to get a sense of the chronology. I was surprised not to find some paintings I'd expected, but I suppose it's pretty damn difficult paring the list down to 50, and not every famous painting could be included. Plus, some famous art is rather crap, and I imagine the authors included/exclued some less famous works that happen to be better exemplars of a style or movement or whatever. Final verdict: interesting but kind of dull for me.

The Sociopath Next Door: the ruthless versus the rest of us

by Martha Stout

I heard a bit of this book when a friend was playing it in her car. Intrigued, I ultimately decided to read the whole thing, in part because I'm convinced my brother is among the one in 25 people who have no conscience at all. I can't profess to know anything about the author's credentials and/or status in the scientific community, but she says she specializes in helping people recover from traumas and has counseled many people who have been damaged by their relationships with sociopaths. This book is an eye-opener, but I recommend taking it with a grain of salt. Psychiatry is a tricky business, and explaining it to a lay-person is particularly dicey, prone to over-simplification, exaggeration and over-generalization. A pretty quick read, totally worth if if you have mentally ill or just plain mean person in your life — which you almost certainly do if these statistics are accurate.

Sex for America: politically inspired erotica
edited by Stephen Elliott

The title doesn't leave much for me to explain. With lots of authors contributing, one is tempted to say there's something for every reader. Mostly hetero and mostly not super-raunchy, and on the whole I found it kind of boring. The story by Jarhead author Anthony Swofford, though, is exciting and filthy and terrifying — at least, I'm pretty sure it's the story by him.

Monday, February 14, 2011

White Brand

by Youka Nitta

Another yaoi manga author whose work I've previously reviewed. One thumbs up and one thumbs down, as I recall. This one is a collection of shorter stories, none great but none exactly bad either. Just kinda meh. I'd've like it more if the sexy bits were sexier.

How to Become a Scandal: adventures in bad behavior

by Laura Kipnis

In college, I was never sure exactly what communications majors were studying. Then again, as someone who considered getting a graduate degree in semiotics, I'm no stranger to the vague, subjective and useless. Well, maybe not useless, but not practical. Cultural critique and analysis has its uses, but one can easily argue it's a luxury few can afford — a sort of First World problem or white male neurosis, if you will. In other words, right up my alley.

Anyway, I didn't realize until I was starting this book that I've also read another book by Kipnis, Against Love: A Polemic, which I found to be very incisive and thought-provoking, in particular when she questions whose interest is really served by monogamy and the so-called nuclear family. With queers fighting for legal recognition of their families and straights divorcing in droves, one does wonder, or should.

Although not entirely without humor, that book is more serious than this newer one. In drolly reviewing four major meltdowns by public figures (or at least people who became public figures due to their extraordinary flame outs), the author explores related issues plaguing modern American life: media saturation, fame obsession, compulsive confession and a total absence of self-shaming. Funny and quick, I recommend it.

Tough Love Baby

by Shiuko Kano

Shiuko Kano has made some of my most favorite yaoi mangas, including Play Boy Blues, I'm Not Your Steppin' Stone, and Maybe I'm Your Steppin' Stone. (Read my reviews of those here.) This PG-13 book definitely meets the author's high standard of stories with emotional sublety and narrative complexity. I only wish it were longer, because I enjoyed it that much. Highly recommended if you're into the genre.

Skippy Dies

by Paul Murray

The jacket copy says something really pompous about this guy being the literary voice of his generation (he was born in 1975), but I remembered that I read a long time ago his other book, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, which I thoroughly enjoyed but wouldn't credit with much literary value. Which begs the question of how a guy with only two books, one of which is fluff, can be given such an exalted position? Maybe it's tongue in cheek, which would be in keeping with his wry sense of humor.

The book clocks in at 600 pages or so, but it's not as tall as the standard hardcover, and it also reads quickly. Despite it's smooth breeziness, however, the story does entail interesting moral dilemmas and insights about human nature, and manages to be sophisticatedly ambiguous enough to keep the reader thinking and guessing. And it's got some damn funny bits too.

So what's the book about? Teenagers in love and lust, adults in love and lust, drugs good bad and questionable, commitment and infatuation, self-knowledge and the possibility of ever really "growing up", time travel in the multiverse, video games and hallucinations, set in an Irish boarding school with priests. It has two protagonists, I guess, one a student and one a teacher not quite at middle-age. It's kind of sad in the end, with that hollow feeling that comes with the realization that there are no easy answers.

Sex at Dawn: the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality

by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

This is a very interesting and highly readable book with important things to say. It is not, however, an important book. I was disappointed, even when entertained, by the authors' flippancy. I'm sure the joshing tone was meant to make science more palatable to the masses, and it probably succeeds in that respect, but it has the unfortunate side-effect of providing fodder to their critics — those in the same field, as well as those who mistrust the whole enterprise of evolutionary psychology.

I don't want to get bogged down in that debate, so with as little judgement as I can manage, I'll tell you: this book uses comparative biology, cultural anthropology and other disciplines to speculate about the socio-sexual behavior of primitive (but, evolutionarily speaking, relatively recent) nomadic hunter-gatherer humans, and then shows how the behaviors for which we are evolutionarily suited are at odds with contemporary social and sexual mores and traditions. Chief among their conclusions, perhaps, is that humans are not evolved for monogamy, which might have some bearing on the number of marriages that end in divorce.

I'll leave it at that. If you want to know how and why they came to that conclusion, read the book.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

by David Sedaris

Um, it's by David Sedaris. Pretty different from his other stuff actually, but you're going to read it or not based on it being by him, so what's the point in me explaining that these are not stories about Sedaris and his life but Aesopian fables twisted by his characteristic sense of humor? Easily read in one sitting, or perhaps several sittings in a certain room on a certain piece of porcelain "furniture."

The Four Stages of Cruelty

by Keith Hollihan

Reading this book did exactly what I'd hoped: it reminded me of watching the TV series Oz. Could have used some hot gay sex, though. A solid stay-up-late thriller set in a penitentiary, this story follows the intertwined fates of a lonely middle-aged female guard and a 19-year-old guy convicted of accidentally(?) killing his ex-girlfriend. The creepy old prison itself and many of the characters have hidden secrets and simmering tensions. The ending is kind of odd, in that it doesn't fully answer one of the central mysteries, but, to my surprise, I actually liked that it didn't.

I Love You Phillip Morris: a true story of life, love, and prison breaks

by Steve McVicker

I wanted to read this before seeing the movie, and now I think the movie might not be playing anywhere. It's a really breezy read with plenty of funny bits, despite being about a man whose life, all things considered, is pretty tragic. This true story (written up by a journalist, based on interviews and research) is also a refreshingly unusual portrayal of a gay dude: on the one hand, the gayness is actually just incidental to the story; on the other hand, here's a gay guy who commits all sorts of crimes and repeatedly breaks out of prison, all for love.

Back to the movie for a sec, it's also heartening to see the great responses from Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey when immature idiots like Leno and Letterman ask them if it was "weird" playing gay characters and/or kissing each other. I'm sure you can find clips on the YouTubes.

Super Sad True Love Story

by Gary Shteyngart

I've almost read a book by this author in the past, but never quite got around to it. So when this one came out to rave reviews, I decided I would read it even though I had to be on the waiting list. I pretty much hated it. Being stubborn, though, I forced myself to read the whole damn thing, looking and hoping that something would happen to make the rave reviews make sense. Alas and alack, no such luck. It's near-future semi-dystopia with an anti-hero, so there's obvious commentary on contemporary culture — but so what? All the characters are just kind of gross, either physically or psychically or both, which I guess is a bit of a trend these days. But I don't have to like it. So there.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Fake, vol. 1

by Sanami Matoh

I was very disappointed and will not continue with this not-quite-yaoi series. The two cop characters are Japanese (and maybe a little too old to qualify for yaoi), but I guess they're in New York or something, because a lot of the other characters seem caucasian, and for some reason all the gangsters have Jewish names (which I found a bit offensive). One of the cops is gay, and the other isn't — or he might be, but I was never convinced to care about the outcome. There also are some implausible events (the two of them all of a sudden sleeping in the same bed with an orphaned 14-year-old they sort of look after) and other failures of story-telling. Lastly, the young character is openly homophobic, so poo on him.

I Was Told There'd Be Cake                     
How Did You Get This Number

by Sloane Crosley

I never got around to writing up Cake, and now I've read the author's second book, which is in development to become a show on HBO. She worked in publishing before being published herself, so I'm sure she knew a thing or two to grease the skids, but stuff is pretty good. I'm not saying that her collections of humorous essays wouldn't have been published (or made into television shows) if she weren't an industry insider, just that they're not really the caliber of David Sedaris or Sara Barron. Or me, for that matter; I'm quite sure I could do better, even though I probably never will.

But, hey, if you like the short funny personal essay genre, go for it. You won't be truly dazzled, but you won't regret it.

Some Things That Meant the World to Me

by Joshua Mohr

Really bizarre book that I didn't particularly like, but I did finish it. Not terrible, I just never quite connected with the character. It's pretty "edgy" and fantastical, about the probable mental illness — or at the very least PTSD — of a young man who grew up with a distant mother and abusive step-father and is struggling to live on his own in San Francisco after being released from an institution in Arizona. Maybe you'd like it if you like Chuck Palahniuk, and/or maybe a good suggestion who likes A Child Called "It" and those sort of books.

As a side note, it was weird (oddly pleasing? disconcerting?) reading a book that mentions places in the Mission neighborhood very near where a friend of mine lives, places I've been.

Rampaging Fuckers of Everything on the Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere

by Mykle Hansen

Bizarre and gross dystopian short stories with occasional flashes of satirical brilliance but mostly gratuitous and unenlightening. Not much else to say, except that I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed reading anything by Carlton Mellick, such as The Haunted Vagina.