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.