Monday, May 23, 2016

Tubes: a journey to the center of the internet

by Andrew Blum

This book is so-so, but I did finish it. Kinda maybe would have been better as a long article in a magazine. Maybe it just needed a different author? I bet Alain de Botton would have been more evocative and stirring, more effectively philosophical. But it's not bad.

The idea is solid: to search out and describe the physical structure of the internet, which is ethereal and place-less in our imaginations. We have the abstract notion of "cyberspace," but especially with the advent of wi-fi and cellular data, we tend to forget that our e-mails (and porn, and all the rest) actually travel through very real fiber optic cables — beneath oceans, under city streets, across continents, alongside highways — and pass through routers and servers in huge buildings full of hardware and wires (generating a lot of heat and consuming loads of electricity). The internet is a real physical network, not a bunch of 1's and 0's flying through the air.

What's the purpose, on the other hand, of such a project? It's not really going to have any lasting effect on how people think about the internet. It's a bit of a lark, interesting but not impacting. (One could argue it's important for people to understand the reality and physicality of the internet, it's fragility and resilience, it's cost and what it consumes — but let's not kid ourselves that people are going to be moved by such pleas.)

Anyway, if the idea intrigues you, by all means go for it. The book is good enough that your interest will carry you through. If the idea doesn't tickle your fancy, though, the writing may not be enough to hold your attention.

The Last Days of My Mother

by Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson

I swear it was only a coincidence that I read this book while on vacation with my mother. I mean, a book about a middle-aged man who's gone on a trip with his dying mother for a last hurrah (and possible miracle cure) — who'd choose to read that while being a middle-aged man on a trip with his mother?

Seriously, though, I'd had it checked out from the library for a long time, and the book was approaching the maximum number of renewals, so the choice wasn't entirely down to me. In any event, turns out it's a very funny book, despite being about death and dying, and drinking and drugs. While the latter topics might be expected to be funny, they just as easily could be tragic; death and dying, meanwhile, need not be tragic if life is well-lived and concludes with dignity and self-determination.

Translated from Icelandic by a small university press, this book is delightful, even when it's being poignant and/or one of the characters is being morose. I laughed out loud a bunch of times. The main characters are quirky but also lovable and believable; minor characters tend toward the outlandish, but that's Amsterdam for you. I would recommend this book to anyone who's looking for contemporary fiction that has a sense of humor without being frivolous. One of the best of the year so far.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Early Pleasures: memoirs of a sensual youth

by Frederick Kohner

When one does an internet search for this author's name, the results are either about this book or about a guy who wrote all the Gidget books and worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood. I'm pretty sure it's the same person, but I didn't find any websites that say so explicitly.

In any case, this book is nothing like a Gidget story. It's a biography — or maybe memoir is more accurate, since one description calls it a "fictionalization" — recounting the author's sexual awakening as a young man in Austria and Paris during the 1920s. Like many an adolescent, his sex life was more a matter of frustrated desire than erotic fulfillment, so definitely not smut and not exactly titillating. I found it very interesting, though, in a documentary sense, as a record of what it was like to be that age at a particular time and place in history. Maybe a touch on the boring side.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Red House

by Mark Haddon

The first book I read by this author was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which is so unusual and wonderful, being narrated by a young man with autism, that of course I'd want to read more. I also really loved A Spot of Bother, a humorous exploration of aging and mortality against the backdrop of a family celebration — not innovative like the first, but very well done and very entertaining.

This book is about family as well, but rather than celebration we have resentments, regrets and rivalries, and a sense of an ending. Some funny bits here and there, but overall somewhat melancholy, though not quite tragic. I put off reading this book due to a negative review I saw somewhere, but I think the review was just some rando rather than a critic or journalist or someone I trust. Anyway, not bad at all, but not top of my list for recommendations either.

(For the record, I'm not going to bother writing up Curious Incident. It's well-known enough, by me and many others, so the praise above will suffice and I will cross it off my list.)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Into the Grey

by Celine Kiernan

Oooh! A spooky story about 15-year-old twin brothers in Ireland in the 1970s. I read this as an e-book, which was an okay experience, but I wish I had read the actual book, because it's a nice physical object — size, heft, design. But I was traveling and trying to be compact.

I read it on the plane, so it was sort of dark, but too many people around to be a really scary atmosphere. I did get frightened at one point, and a little choked up even, but also I was kinda drunk. (Long story... spilled my drink when half-way done, and both flight attendants gave me replacement minis, so I wound up with three and a half drinks instead of one.) I was also, about two-thirds through the book, prepared to be really pissed off if it ended the way it looked to be headed, but I won't spoil the ending by telling you.

The story is multi-layered and multi-generational, with multiple "ghosts" both literal and figurative. It explores themes of love and loss, moving on (or not) and growing up. At a dingy old seaside cottage, one of the brothers is possessed by the ghost of a child, and the remaining brother must somehow figure out how to save him. The story of the ghost child links to the story of a dead WWI soldier, whose story in turn links to the twins' stroke-addled grandmother and a suicidal stranger they saved from drowning in the ocean.

The twin who narrates has a very clear and genuine voice, and his powerfully expressed love and fear for his brother are both underlined by the vaguer sense of how they're beginning to grow apart and moving toward adulthood. In many teen books, the adult characters are absent or useless and/or the teen characters act as if no adult could ever understand or help. Refreshingly, in this book the narrator believes his parents could help him and his brother; even though he has compelling reasons not to ask for their help directly, he still sees the possibility of drawing on the potency of their familial bonds. While he searches for his own strength and understanding, he has a lingering tendency to seek the shelter of their care and authority — a tendency that itself is evolving into a recognition of the wisdom and capability that come with experience and maturity — which I think is a more realistically nuanced portrayal of the adolescent experience.

All those details aside, it's also just a really good story with a lot of narrative tension and emotional intensity. I've already recommended it to a teen reader!

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Grasshopper Jungle: a history
The Alex Crow

by Andrew Smith

One could be forgiven for thinking the author of these two books could not possibly be the same Andrew Smith who wrote Winger and Stand Off. I'm reviewing these two together because both are wacky, irreverent science fiction-y stories; I'll review Winger later, probably after I've read Stand Off (on the shelf at home).

Grasshopper Jungle is a real eye-catcher, bright electric-green with yellow-edged pages, and the insides are equally exciting. It's also a little raunchy, if you consider giant mutant insect sex to be naughty. Teenager sex happens too, but a lot more bug sex happens. The story could be considered something of an anti-GMO parable, or a warning about science (and wealth and power) run amok, but it's also just a story about a teenage boy who loves his girlfriend but also maybe loves his gay best friend too. Teens seem to really dig this book, and I was pretty jazzed by it too, though I think there was waaay too much cigarette smoking (totally unnecessary smoking, IMHO, but seriously overdone even if you believe it did add something to the story).

Side note about Grasshopper Jungle: After reading this book, I noticed that the Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication data lists "Gender identity" as one of the subject headings. No one in the story questions or changes his/her gender identity, so it's completely wrong and should be "Bisexuality" or "Sexual orientation." I was able to get it changed in my library's catalog pretty easily. I also contacted the LoC to see if they could have the CIP data changed for future editions of the book; they promised to get back to me, but it's been more than a year. Even if they do change the CIP, thousands of libraries still have copies with the wrong subject heading. I've considered a few ways to try to start a campaign to spread the word and get other libraries to change their cataloging too, but I don't know if I'll ever get it together to really do anything. I also tried to contact the author through a form on his website, but no one wrote back to me.

The Alex Crow is not as good as Grasshopper Jungle. It sort of felt to me in some ways like a soup of ideas leftover from the earlier book, and the characters aren't as engaging. Repeated themes include absentee adults, mutant/cybernetic animals, doomsday scenario. Humor and sex are lacking compared to GJ. Still worth reading and a solid recommendation if you enjoyed its predecessor.

Monday, May 02, 2016

I.O.U.: why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay

by John Lanchester

Well, this book wasn't exactly what I was expecting, but it was okay. I almost gave up early on, because I was annoyed at the mix of &3163; and $, but the specific amounts turn out not to be all that relevant, and their sheer size in the trillions and very high billions is impressive in either currency. Also, the author is a Brit, and he does look at the 2007-08 financial crisis from a specifically Anglo-American perspective, and he does highlight some crucial difference in how things played out on both sides of the Atlantic.

The author has an interesting theory, but it only comes up at the beginning and end of the book. He believes that the fall of Communism left the capitalist democracies, and especially the "Anglo-Saxon" model of capitalism as practiced in the US and UK, without an enemy or a credible alternative or basis for comparison, creating a climate in which extreme deregulation of banking and financial services set the stage for the worldwide financial crisis and massive bailouts and credit crunch of the late 2000s. Most of the book is then a look at the steps leading up to the sub-prime mortgage/collateralized debt obligation/credit default swap debacle, and some of its aftermath.

A much longer book could be made from this story, so the amount of information packed into this relatively small volume is actually pretty amazing. In lieu of attempting to summarize, here are a few of the things that grabbed my attention:
  • Investment banks did (and no doubt still do) create subsidiary entities called SPVs "special purpose vehicles" and SIVs "structured investment vehicles" to keep assets (such as securitized debt) and the associated risk of those assets off the banks' balance sheets, and to avoid or circumvent rules, such as those requiring a certain amount of capital reserves to cover said risky assets. SIVs and SPVs can be set up for 364 days or fewer, as a workaround for rules that would apply to a company that existed for a year or more. Even where regulations exist, skirting the rules and brazenly violating the spirit of the rules is widespread.
  • "It shouldn't be possible to be that wrong" is what the author says about the risk modeling and statistical analysis that convinced bankers and regulators that they had magically made all the risk disappear (or at least passed it on to someone else). For example, the 1998 Russian bond default should have happened once in 3 billion years, but it wasn't the only supposedly highly unlikely event to have happened in recent decades; still, bankers believed the math that said problems with packaged and securitized sub-prime mortgages were absurdly unlikely, equivalent to winning the UK national lottery 21 times in a row.
  • Further criticizing the risk-taking and bonus-accumulating culture of financial services, the author makes a distinction between "business" (which celebrates economic thinking, where money just makes more money and profit is the only product) and "industry" (which makes or does something, with money as means and byproduct). Beyond the immediate effects of the worldwide crash and bailouts, the turning of entire national economies (US and UK) away from industry to unregulated financial services, and the triumph of capitalism over communism, has the secondary result that business and economic thinking have spread to areas it doesn't belong, such as education, health care, government services. The free market and capitalist ethos is not a good model for social welfare projects, which should begin with a discussion of values, principles and desired outcomes, then proceed with decisions about what is affordable and feasible. The alternative is economic thinking, in which the idea of value is replaced by the idea of price, and which seeks to maximize "profit" by privatizing, downsizing, and monetizing the common good.
Long story short, we still need more balance between capitalism and communalism. Meanwhile, I'm going to try to position myself to buy a house when the next "asset correction" causes prices to bottom out again, which I predict will happen in about three or four years.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

If Walls Could Talk : an intimate history of the home

by Lucy Worsley

Another book in the category Curious Histories of Mostly–White People Things. Of course, if you live in North America or Europe or an urbanized area just about anywhere in the world, no matter your color or culture, these Things are yours now too: bathrooms, bedrooms, kitchens, housing and households of a certain size, expectations of privacy are all being globalized, for better or worse.

Anyway, this book is an interesting and nicely written exploration of the historical, and changing, cultural significance of the objects and activities which make up that thing we call a home. It covers a broad range of topics, so my recollections are of random tidbits of information:
  • spits for roasting meats were turned by a type of dog specially bred to be a size and shape that would fit inside a hamster wheel–like contraption attached to the spit
  • people in olden times went to sleep early (when it got dark) but often got up for a few hours to do stuff in the middle of the night before going back to sleep for a few more hours
  • royals wiped their butts with cloth napkins
  • we all should be more grateful for modern toilets and sewers
History is more than great people and geopolitics. The details of everyday life in the past are fascinating. I recommend this book for readers who like to think about historical settings and "period details" more than supposedly significant events. Also good for trivia buffs and amateur sociologists.

One D.O.A., One on the Way
Why Did I Ever

by Mary Robison

I read Why Did I Ever quite some time ago, but I've never forgotten the author's unique and biting sense of humor — sarcastic, world-weary, nothing's sacred, whip-smart, everything's fucked. Both books are fairly short and enjoyable, assuming you appreciate the caustic wit, and both feature a female protagonist who works in the film industry, either in the South or from the South. Both books also consist of short, diary-like entries, epigrams and lists. (One D.O.A. has lists, anyway; I don't remember if the other does.)

Published in 2001, Why Did I Ever features a character trying to manage her ADD while struggling as a screenwriter and navigating various personal crises. One D.O.A., One on the Way came out in 2009 and is narrated by a location scout married to a lazy scion of an old-money New Orleans family; she's trying to train an intern, even though all the work has moved to Shreveport since Katrina, and inexplicably having an affair with her husband's identical twin, perhaps only because she can't always tell which one is which. A number of the lists in the latter book detail the myriad ways New Orleans remains a shambles several years post-hurricane.

If you think you're a match for this type of humor, I give a hearty recommendation for both of these books. The author has written a few collections of short stories, but I haven't tried any of them.

Monday, April 18, 2016

We Were Liars

by E. Lockhart

I wound up really liking this book, though I put off reading it for a long time. When I first heard about it, the description kind of turned me off, and the fact that it was getting lots of hype didn't help either. I have read another book by the author that I enjoyed (Fly on the Wall), so I eventually checked this one out after seeing yet another mention of it somewhere.

The book is fairly short, and the story is very gripping, with a surprise twist that you know is coming but probably won't guess. I thought I knew, I had some ideas... but I was wrong! And the reveal felt very exciting, which is a testament to the excellent writing, because the twist could easily have been flubbed. You've got some rich kids who spend summers together on a private island (you can see why I was a bit turned off...) and some kind of incident that happened a couple of summers ago; one of the teens (protagonist) can't remember what happened, and no one else will talk about it. The dark side of family wealth and fundamental unfairnesses related to social class are not ignored, and in fact they are fuel for the development of the plot, so the story is more than just a bunch of spoiled rich kids (even though it kind of is).

A very good YA book overall — some romance, some tragedy; tension and the right pacing/length. I would definitely recommend this book to lots of teens, and I might try to get my mom and sister to read it on vacation.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Cottage in the Woods

by Katherine Coville

Squeeeeee! I sometimes feel silly when I find myself rooting for a happy ending, but this book for middle-schoolers had me anxiously hopeful and, finally, grinning ear to ear. Good wins! Acceptance, tolerance, and friendship rule! Love wins!

Anyway... This book is pretty weird but also fantastic. A twist on the story of Goldilocks told from the point of view of a young she-bear governess, with elements of Victorian/Regency romance and tons more fairy tale references. The language and styling are spot-on without being overwrought or distracting, and excitement comes in the form of both danger and romance, while a subplot promotes social values and diversity. My only complaint is the lack of illustrations (other than the book cover); too many would have made the book babyish, but some of the more colorful characters were begging to be sketched.

I'm not sure at what age girls start reading Jane Austen, so I'm a little unclear on the target audience. The book, with its mix of animal and human characters, is certainly kid friendly, even if there are some slightly scary bits, but I don't know how much the love interest and historical social setting would appeal to pre-tween readers. Meanwhile, the book has plenty for adults to enjoy. But I could also see a precocious 2nd or 3rd grader loving it.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

At Last

by Edward St. Aubyn

Another funeral book ... I do hope an unfortunate trend is not developing. (I'm doing catch-up reviews out of order, so I haven't actually read these books in proximity to one another.)

Compared to the last two funeral books I wrote up (This Is Where I Leave You and The Mathematician's Shiva), this book features a family that is much more dysfunctional, and not in a wryly funny way. Bits of black humor do appear, however, in the form of social class absurdities and the protagonist's acidic wit and nihilism. But is there hope "at last" for Patrick Melrose, subject of four other novels by this author? Though denied an inheritance by his always-withholding mother's eccentric will, he might, with her death, at long last be released from the poisonous tendrils of his parents' warped relationship.

Edward St. Aubyn is a great writer of psychological fiction that really gets the reader inside the character's head. (Not to be confused with the genre of psychological thrillers.) I think maybe he's more widely read in the UK than the US. I've never met anyone, as far as I know, who's read him, but his books usually have a modest waiting list at the library. Maybe he's a writer's writer, and critically acclaimed, but I guess his type of fiction isn't blockbuster material, no matter how fine it is. (His 2014 book, Lost for Words, is a lighthearted satire and may have wider appeal.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The North Water

by Ian McGuire

I've only once before encountered the word pong used in the sense of "an odor," and the author's use of it in this book is spot-on: what smell could be described as a pong if not the stank of a bunch of dudes on a whaling ship in 1800-something? Richly descriptive, with a soupçon of period-appropriate slang and (presumably) well-researched whaling industry jargon, the book's language flows easily and speeds the narrative tension without sacrificing atmosphere or forgoing the occasional fifty-cent word.

Set against the blinding white of Arctic summer, the plot certainly offers a stark good vs evil contrast, while the protagonist's journey involves moral ambiguities and second chances. Being a relatively short thriller, though, this book has nowhere near the philosophical depth of Moby-Dick, however tempting the comparison may be. But a gripping and visceral tale is exactly what I needed when I found this book, and I can heartily recommend it on its own terms.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

The Book of Joe
This Is Where I Leave You

by Jonathan Tropper

Both of these books made me laugh, and The Book of Joe also made me cry. I definitely like this writer and have recommended him to various people for various reasons. He has, I think, a good grasp of adult male psychology, with a mix of humor, sadness and realistically complex emotions and situations, so that angle can be handy for recommendations.

The Book of Joe is a you-can't-go-home-again type of story, except of course you can — and, my, how you've changed! And look how coming home again changes you even more! (I'm mocking the you-can't-go-home-again concept, not the book.) The story is about family relationships, and about the friendships of our youth, what's left behind, what remains regardless of our leaving, what could/should be kept or gotten back. Several tragedies are happening concurrently, yet lighter moments and redemptive possibilities keep the story from becoming too heavy. (But, as stated, I did cry, maybe even more than once.) As someone who's lived far away from most of my family for 20 years, a lot of this stuff resonated with me.

This Is Where I Leave You is a funeral and a divorce (and more: each character has his/her issues), but with humor and Jewish self-deprecation. In the movie, Tina Fey's character punches a guy in the face, and the main character is played by Jason Bateman (who is one of my imaginary celebrity husbands). Again, lots of real emotions and struggles, but leavened with humor.

Everybody Knows What Time It Is: But Nobody Can Stop the Clock

by Reginald Martin

1. Show, don't tell.
2. All-caps/bold/underline WTF?
3. Learn difference between apostrophe and open single quotation mark.

Above are my notes from immediately after reading this book. I think I may not have finished it because I disliked it so much. I found the writing so weird that the actual content is inscrutable.

According to one summary/review I found, the book is "written in one of the most unique prose styles to appear in recent years" — "unique" is sometimes a kind word when one has nothing nice or coherent to say.

This other summary from the library catalog effectively conveys the book's unintelligibility: "This book is not just a record of the past. It is a continuous acting agent in the lives of man, an agent or an aspect that will continue to have its way with man if man refuses to recognize and embrace history as a constant instead of as a dead artifact."

The Andy Cohen Diaries: a deep look at a shallow year

by Andy Cohen

I don't understand the Real Housewives of [Whatever] phenomenon that he's responsible for creating, but I love me some Andy Cohen. He's hunky but not intimidatingly hot, cuz he's also a little bit adorkable, and he's not just funny, he's hilarious. Doesn't hurt that he's probably pretty well off... He seems like a lot of fun.

I found this book very entertaining, dishy without being mean, honest and open-hearted. It records a year of his life in diary form (duh), and it's (I don't want to say surprisingly) well-written. Not sure if he had a ghost writer, or how much editing happened, but I'm not really surprised that he's a decent writer. He's generally creative and smarter than one might assume based on his television persona.

When someone asks for a fun, "mindless" read, this book would be an excellent recommendation. I hate to call it fluff, and I put quotes around that other word because I believe it is thoughtfully written, even if it won't make you think very hard while reading it. A very good book for traveling.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Shame and Wonder: Essays

by David Searcy

This book got a glowing review in Publishers Weekly, and I'd been meaning to read more essays (not the persuasive sort, more like musings or commentaries). The author is a Texan, which promised (the book review promised!) an outlook different from my own and a landscape alien to me. Well, ho-hum. I don't know, I just wasn't feeling it. I gave it the old college try. My only regret is that I hung on too long trying to get into it, and now I'm falling behind on my backlog of books.

My next book up is meant to be a thriller, but I also picked it up on the strength of a PW review. Come to think of it, PW gave a very good review to Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend, too, and I have trouble believing that teen book will be any good. Consider yourself on notice, Publishers Weekly.

Gypsy Boy: my life in the secret world of the Romany Gypsies

by Mikey Walsh

Sometimes you read a memoir in which the writing is so good that it doesn't matter if nothing momentous happens; sometimes you read a memoir in which the story is so compelling that the writing just needs to be not terrible. This book is the second kind. Not to say the writing is less than okay, because it's fine, very readable, but it's not the strong point.

I have to admit the idea of a gay Gypsy gave me an inappropriate tickle, much like thoughts of gay Mormons or gay Amish. Very privilege-y and ethnocentric of me, I know, but in any case nothing titillating occurs in this book. The author is sexually assaulted by a relative, and he does have a romantic relationship at the end, but no fun sexy bits.

Still, a really interesting look and insider perspective on Romany culture, and a first-person chronicle of a difficult personal journey. Quick, gripping read. A sequel has been written, but I don't feel all that motivated to read it.

Monday, April 04, 2016

How to Be Both

by Ali Smith

I once tried to discuss David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas with a friend, only to realize after ten minutes that she was talking about The Cloud Atlas by Liam Callanan. How to Be Both is a little bit like that, on purpose. Two stories, more cross-referential than intertwined, compose this brilliant book, which has two published versions with the same two stories in different order. I don't remember if my copy was "Camera" then "Eye," or "Eye" then "Camera." Imagine the possibilities of a book discussion group in which some people read one version and some read the other.

I really enjoyed the writing in this book. I found myself re-reading passages, flipping around through the pages to hunt for connections and clues, and even posted some choice quotes online. The two stories are set in very different times (1400s and 1960s, I think) and are superficially very different to one another, despite the appearance of a particular Italian fresco in both. They are thematically related, however, and "inform" one another (in the parlance of literary criticism). So in a sense it's a complex novel of ideas, but also one that's just damn good reading.

What it is the book about, though? A teenage girl's coming of age in England and a Renaissance artist with a secret, but telling you that doesn't really help. It's also, as the title indicates, about being two things at once, which is also like being neither thing, and it's about how we tell ourselves and show others who we are. To whom should one recommend this book? Anyone who enjoys literary fiction and those who have enjoyed books by Barbara Kingsolver, Donna Tartt, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jeanette Winterson, Virginia Woolf. (Those last three could constitute a little bit of a clue that I hope won't spoil anything.)

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Full Service: my adventures in Hollywood and the secret sex lives of the stars

by Scotty Bowers

This book didn't feel as scandalous or subversive or titillating as I though it ought. Which says something about me (that I'm jaded, or that I'd hoped I wasn't) or about the world (that, in my little corner of it at least, society has progressed beyond some of its prudishness about sex; or, if it hasn't, maybe these particular secrets simply weren't really secrets anymore). Perhaps I already knew these "secrets" because I'm gay? I promise you, we don't have some kind of gay intranet or newsletter that tells us all the celebrities who are "secretly" gay, but straight people still ask me as if I would know something they couldn't have learned just by reading gossip blogs or tabloids or even People.

Anyway, this bisexual author apparently made quite a few connections, so to speak, and arranged many more in the hidden gay Hollywood of the 1950s-60s-etc. He worked at a gas station that served as a sort of mini-brothel (it had restrooms and a trailer or two) and referral service for gay and lesbian celebrities and other well-heeled homosexualists to meet the (usually) younger gay, lesbian, and hetero-flexible freelancers with whom discreet arrangements were possible.

The writing is serviceable, leaving the story to do all the work. I was by no mean bored, but I wasn't enthralled either. A quick read, dishy enough even if some of the revelations are old news. Katherine Hepburn apparently had very bad skin, requiring lots of makeup, lighting and soft focus, and also was rather unpleasant and unliked.

Thursday, March 31, 2016


by Jeremy M. Davies

A deeply strange book, challenging and peculiarly entertaining.

I'm tempted to call this book experimental and/or post-modern, but rather than the language (however acrobatic) or structure (quirky as it is) constituting the novel's raison d'être or rendering its meaning, the most unusual thing here is that the author's philosophical project is quite literally the protagonist's existential dilemma, unconcealed by metaphor or artifice, laid bare as the actual subject matter of a book-length monologue...about cats.

Though nominally about cats, the narrative has so many digressions that you'll more often than not lose sight of the cats — precisely the author's intention. Reality is as elusive as those cats, and nothing is certain in this tale of cat fancying: the speaker may or may not be who he says, he may be the other person about whom he speaks, he may be a cat; he may be speaking to a man and a woman, or to no one at all, or to a cat; he may or may not exist; he may have twenty cats, he may not. So the book is about that uncertainty, and the cats are somewhat beside the point (though there is a very satisfying moment toward the end when the cats are revealed as a possible solution to the fundamental metaphysical question of whether things exist independent of our perception of them).

None of which conveys the weird, chuckling humor and absolute genius of this novel.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Mathematician's Shiva

by Stuart Rojstaczer

A young, female Eastern European Jewish mathematical savant survives a labor camp and makes her way to the U.S., where she has a long career as a respected academic, and a son. No surprise, then, that many colleagues want to attend her funeral and celebrate her life and achievements, even though her son would prefer a quiet and dignified period of mourning. He will not get his wish, though, especially once the rumor spreads that his mother had solved a very thorny and long-standing problem in mathematics, and spitefully taken to solution to her grave.

Doesn't sound funny, does it? This book does have some laugh out loud moments, along with touching emotional moments. No equations or hard to understand concepts, the math here is mostly a metaphor, a reflection of the riddles in human relationships, even with those we think we know best. A lot of people would enjoy this book, if the knew about it.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Engineering Animals: how life works

by Mark Denny and Alan McFadzean

Trying to jog my memory, I just found summary of this book citing "wit and a richly informed sense of wonder." I maybe get the wonder, but I don't recall the wit. The book is chock full of super interesting geeky things, but it's also kind of dry and academic. (I know, I know. I'm the Goldilocks of nonfiction.) A very worthwhile book, but not one that's going to keep you up reading past your bedtime. I remember being quite fascinated by the section on animal sonar; it's the most thorough explanation I've ever read. And the more I think about it, the more I realize this is a very special book — possibly the only book about animal ecophysiology that a non-scientist would ever get her hands on.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Deadman Wonderland

by Jinsei Kataoka

Death Race 2000 * meets The Hunger Games meets The Fugitive done as a manga. I didn't get hooked on this series, even though it has a bunch of promising (weird, but promising) elements. The plot has a lot of things going on, so I think maybe I was worried it would be a never-ending series that never really gets anywhere, but apparently it's only 13 volumes. Maybe if I'd had more volumes on hand I would have kept going. An anime adaptation aired in Japan in 2011, and I'm mildly curious about it.

Overall score: meh. I can see younger teens being into it, but parents should be advised there's quite a bit of gore.

* I'm referring to cult classic Death Race 2000, rather than the 2008 reboot and sequels, because the manga series has a certain dark humor mixed with the deadly mayhem.

The White Devil

by Justin Evans

A horror novel set at an English boarding school, complete with gay-vague and ghost-gay happenings. You tell me if  I liked this book.

The writing is satisfactory, serviceable; this a plot book, not a language book. Not my usual sort of thing, but I read it based on a recommendation from a friend. (Did she recommend the book to me particularly, rather than making a general rec to all and sundry, just because the story has gay-ish stuff, and me being gay... Who cares. I enjoyed it, and that's what matters.)

Be careful not to confuse this book with the several others having similar titles (though I've heard The Devil in the White City is quite good). Though it's cataloged in the adult section, you could certainly recommend this book to a teen.

Nothing to Envy: ordinary lives in North Korea

by Barbara Demick

I recently heard some talk on the NPR about the way North Korea is both terrifying and ridiculous. Even an intelligence analyst who professionally studied the DPRK as a serious security threat admitted to sometimes picturing Kim Jong Il as the singing puppet from Team America: World Police. As baffling as this hermit kingdom seems to an outsider, it is barely more comprehensible to most of the people living through it's totalitarian social, political and economic regime. For them, it is also terrifying in much more immediate ways than it is for us. Nevetheless, people will find ways to survive — and ways to escape.

This book offers a glimpse into North Korea through the stories of people who have made it to freedom in the south. Life in the north is in many ways rather primitive, but the military is working on nuclear weapons while people starve. Just another humanitarian crisis in slow-motion that no one is really confronting. But what could be done, short of a military takeover? Imagining how this regime might eventually come to a peaceful end is as difficult as understanding how it could have gone on so long already.

Definitely an interesting book, well-written and informative, with emotional heft. Several other books about North Korea came out around the same time, but I haven't read any of the others and can't compare/contrast.

The Book of David

by Anonymous

This book may be "anonymous," but I seriously doubt it was written by a teenager, let alone the teen whose story it is supposed to be. "David" writes suspicously well for someone who needed tutoring in English class. Anyway, in the tradition of Go Ask Alice, here we have "true" teen diary of someone going through troubles. In this case, a high school quarterback struggles to come to terms with being gay. The book jacket info doesn't say what his "secret" is, but you'd have to be pretty dull not to assume that he's gonna be gay. Lack of surprise notwithstanding, I'd say this book is not terrible, short and quick, occasionally mildly titillating, pretty entertaining. The ending is a little rushed, though, with some very bad reactions from his parents and a quick jump toward a promising future with the support of other, nicer adults.


In the Fat

by Sally K Lehman

My first e-book!

Started reading this for work purposes and enjoyed it enough to finish. The story is emotionally intense (multiple trigger warnings, if you're into that) but has moments of dark humor and a hopeful conclusion for the main character, despite an eleventh-hour bonus misfortune. The protagonist is a young girl, 13 going on 14, who is in a mental institution, and at first I thought it would kind of be Girl, Interrupted all over again. But the character's voice feels fresh and authentic, making it easy to empathize and want to find out what happens (and what happened to get her there). The author effectively shows how a person can be simultaneously stronger and more mature than her years, and also innocent and in need of nurturing. I would recommend this for teens and adults, mostly female.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Ninety Percent of Everything: inside shipping, the invisible industry that puts clothes on your back, gas in your car, and food on your plate

by Rose George

Is it an oxymoron (or is it ironic) to call something a textbook example of literary nonfiction (because not being like a textbook is what makes nonfiction literary)? Whatever it is, this book is a great example of the genre. It is factually interesting and informing, without cramming a lot of dry data, and the author makes herself and her experience part of the story. The romance of the sea wouldn't come through without her including herself in the story, and it is the tension between our feelings about the sea and the ugly realities of seaborne cargo that makes the book compelling.

Shipping is a murky world, filled with shell companies, owners in one country employing workers from other countries on boats registered in yet other countries. This book is only a glimpse into that world, since a lot more than one book would be needed to lay it bare. Either way, the industry is so invisible to us (the way farms and cows are invisible to supermarket shoppers) that it is unlikely to change, or be changed, with any swiftness, no matter how much of its underbelly is revealed. Not that this book is an expose or call for radical reform; it's actually pretty neutral, letting the facts speak for themselves.

Good book for nonfiction lovers and adventurous types. Could also be interesting to people concerned about the environment, workers' rights, and social justice. I'd even recommend it to business-types on the grounds that it's about commerce, therefore useful and productive, while also providing some measure of relaxing escapism and adventure.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

London Under: the secret history beneath the streets

by Peter Ackroyd

I recently enthused about this writer's talent, and it is definitely on display in this book. Though much slimmer than his other books, this one has the same panache and wealth of fascinating, little-known information. From buried streams and springs to putrid sewers, Roman ruins, and abandoned Tube stations, myriad secrets lie beneath the streets of London, and you don't have to be an Anglophile, history buff, or archaeology geek to find it interesting. I liked this book very much and frequently place it on the staff picks shelf.

A documentary in this vein exists, but I don't know if it's related.

Empire of Self: a life of Gore Vidal

by Jay Parini

Gore Vidal hated the biography that was published while he was still alive. I don't think he would have taken much more kindly to this one, but then that's one of the essential paradoxes of narcissism: the narcissist doesn't want to see his true reflection; he is enamored of his self-image. An honest yet respectful, occasionally even tender, biography with its subject's narcissism — his "empire of self" — as leitmotif might also seem like a paradox, yet here it is.

Nicely written, comprehensive, and entertaining book about a fascinating figure in American literature, cinema, and political and social commentary. A solid 400 pages that's not a fast read but not a slog either, this book shows Vidal's genius, his foibles, his humanity. Not as amusing as his own memoirs, particularly Palimpsest, but a clear-eyed portrait drawing on numerous people and perspectives.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Loveless, vols. 1 & 2

by Yun Kouga

In terms of manga, I tend to stick to realistic stories in which people are just people and don't grow cat ears (or do so rarely, and usually just to convey a mood rather than to indicate an actual physical attribute). I also haven't read any with super-powered martial arts battles or spaceships and battle armor. So this series, despite its mild yaoi-ish younger/older homo-romantic themes, was a bit of a departure for me. I did read both "volumes" (1 and 2 are bound together as one book), and I had the next set on my (frozen) hold list for a while... but I ultimately decided against it when I needed to make room for other holds.

I read up about the series online, because the plot is rather convoluted. Even having done some background research, I found some of it hard to follow. I also felt as if it would take forever for anything really interesting to happen, and I knew from my research that the central mystery (involving the deceased — or not!? — brother of the main character) does not ever have a really satisfying conclusion.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Hollow Earth: the long and curious history of imagining strange lands, fantastical creatures, advanced civilizations, and marvelous machines below the earth's surface

by David Standish

Not the most scintillating writing, but effective enough and straightforward. Entertaining and informative, if you like reading about kooks and cranks. The book covers many oddball theories about our third rock from the sun, from literature to pseudoscience, occult mysticism to early twentieth century health food cults, religious movements and utopian societies: unknown civilizations (and/or dinosaurs) living in caverns deep inside the earth, attempts to prove the earth is flat, Hitler's alleged belief that we are living on the interior surface of a sphere, to name a few. Some of these ideas are sort of understandable, given the state of scientific knowledge when they were formulated, some are wild speculation and obvious fabrication regardless of origin. The author doesn't mock any of these theories (that would be me), he tries to show their cultural context and connection the zeitgeist. A-plus for the illustrations, too.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

A Perfect Waiter

by Alain Claude Sulzer

Unlucky in love... just like me!

Okay, got that out of my system (maybe).

Seriously, though, this is a really sad book. A German-Swiss waiter leads a lonely life of rigid routine, having never recovered from a romantic betrayal 30 years earlier. He takes pride in being very good at his job, the same job he had in the 1930s when he met the love of his life, a slightly younger man who seemed to love him too for one bright, shining season, only to abandon him for a wealthy patron and a ticket to America.

A letter out of the blue from his lost love, alone now and in dire straits, asking for help, stirs up repressed memories and pain. Can he trust this tale of woe? Should he care? Does he owe anything to the man who ruined him so many years ago? If he's never recovered from the relationship, perhaps he owes it to himself to seek closure of some kind. But the truth is elusive, subjective and offers no solace. This story is relentlessly sad, but also beautiful, fragile and vivid.

House of Holes: a book of raunch

by Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker wrote The Mezzanine and A Box of Matches, and he also wrote The Fermata. If I didn't know better, you probably could convince me there are two different authors who both just happen to be named Nicholson Baker. But, no, there's only one, and he has two specialties: intricately crafted explorations of quotidian tasks, the universe contained in a single moment; and intricately crafted smut, no-holes-barred astonishingly raunchy sex. This book is the second kind. I'm not sure how much of a plot there is, definitely less than in The Fermata. Things happen, somebody's trying to do something, but it's all just a bunch of frames for different chapters of sex. Maybe I was too distracted to catch the mythos, or maybe there isn't one and the book is just an exercise in pornography. Not that it's bad. I don't regret reading it. But don't expect there to be some literary revelation hidden in the subtext. Or, if you find it, let me know.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The White Feather

by P.G. Wodehouse

Not as funny as I'd expected, but I'm not holding it against the author. I'm willing to read another of his books maybe someday. This story, being about a young man with few friends who learns boxing to save face after running away from a fight, is perhaps not so ripe for humor as some other topics Wodehouse has explored. I was enticed by the English boarding school setting and visions of athletic young men, so I wasn't just in it for the yuks. Pretty good, though: short, well-written (despite some dated language and references), nicely drawn characters.

Venice: pure city

by Peter Ackroyd

What a prolific author! Scads of biographies, history, fiction (mostly historical), essays, books for children... and all books that require mountains of research. Rather impressive. He's written several books about London and the Thames River, in a style that's a sort of "biography of place," which is what this book is. I want to call it a biography rather than just a history of a place because it's a type of cultural history that looks not only at the people and events but also the character and spirit a place and the ethos of its people.

Venice has its obvious source of fascination, but so much more than geography makes it special — while at the same time the city's unique location and environment permeate and inspire its history, from its fourth century founding by refugees fleeing the Lombard invasion of Italy to the present day. Ackroyd's vivid, sometimes florid, storytelling style is perfectly suited to a place as colorful and unconventional as Venice.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learned a lot, including some great 50-cent vocabulary words. A terrific nonfiction readers advisory suggestion, it brings to mind the notion of "armchair travel" with the bonus of travelling through time as well as space.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda

by Becky Albertalli

This book got a lot of hype, but I have no idea how it went over with actual teens (as opposed to librarians and other people who work with teens). Gay story lines are popular nowadays, at least with the nerdy kids who hang around the library. I found the book to be okay but in need of editing (which is making me feel like a broken record lately).

A high school student who isn't quite out yet (though he does do theater) is communicating online with an anonymous boyfriend who also goes to his school. Whoever could it be? What if he gets it wrong and makes a pass at the wrong guy? How awkward! Meanwhile, some other guy finds out and blackmails him for help getting closer to his best gal pal.

Promising story ingredients, right? My complaints are that the happy ending happens to fast, some character actions don't seem realistically teenager-y, and the like. On a technical level the writing is good, but I think some higher level polishing would have resulted in a better book overall. Still, looking back on it now, I would definitely recommend this book — not like, "OMG, you have to read this," but like, "yeah, it's a good book."


by Benette Whitmore

So-so teen book about a young woman whose mother builds a fallout shelter that only winds up being used by her twin brother (to do drugs, including a near-fatal overdose) and by her (to lose her virginity to her brother's friend). Mom is distant and mostly unhelpful, dad's out of the picture. The story deals with fairly typical teen struggles and angst, but the setting is kind of dated and may not resonate with young people today. I finished reading it, so that's something.

American Honor Killings: desire and rage among men

by David McConnell

I found out about this book on a gay news and culture blog I used to like, and I wanted to read it right away. My library never got it (until recently, as an e-book), and I had to wait a whole year to be able to get it via interlibrary loan. Well, I finally read it!

The author examines a number of (relatively) high profile murder cases involving so-called "gay panic" and similar male-male sexual entanglements or insinuations. Relying on media reports, court records and some personal interviews, the book is well-researched but necessarily speculative in some places. The author is pretty clear about where he is guessing or imagining, and he also makes it clear in the introduction that he has a sort of sociological theory or agenda, so the book is not strictly reportage.

I'd say it's a pretty good book on an interesting but sad and distressing topic. Nothing transgressively sexy at all, just a disturbing reminder of the potential danger in the wider world. As a gay man in a rather liberal city, forgetting about homophobia is easy to do.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Boy in the Moon: a father's journey to understand his extraordinary son

by Ian Brown

This book is incredibly moving and thought-provoking. I may have even teared up a bit.

The author (a journalist, I think) writes about his son, who has an extremely rare genetic disorder that renders him severely disabled and in need of constant attention and care. He needs to wear diapers, has to be feed through a tube into his stomach, and must wear protective cuffs so he won't constantly hit himself in the head. He is unable to communicate, and his mental capacity is all but impossible to determine. With such extreme physical and mental impairments, does he even know who his parents and sister are? What does "quality of life" mean for someone like him? Can it even be measured on a scale that's comprehensible to ordinary people? How can his needs be weighed against the needs of the rest of the family? The author grapples with these questions honestly and with sensitivity, finding no clear or easy answers.

Although the author's son has a very unusual and uncommon disorder, the issues explored in this book affect everyone. Each of us will face decisions about how to care for, and how to let go of, aging parents, spouses, loved ones. Anyone can suffer a catastrophic illness or injury that drastically alters quality of life and raises questions about end of life care and dying with dignity.

This book could go in the Top 20, maybe even Top 10. It's a solid recommendation for many audiences: top-notch writing, deeply emotional, realistic nonfiction.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

A Guide to the Good Life: the ancient art of Stoic joy

by William Braxton Irvine

I really dig this book. It inspired me to quit drinking alcohol for a month (to prove I could, as an exercise in self-control, and to enhance my enjoyment of drinking when I did do it). The ideas of Stoic philosophy from the ancient Greeks and Romans line up with things I've learned from meditation and psychology and biology about dealing with negative emotions and unhelpful thinking patterns.

Many people think of philosophy as mere mental masturbation, but in the olden days it was very much about how to live and what ways of looking at the world and what kinds of behavior and beliefs would lead to happiness. Stoic philosophy in particular is very practical, with specific techniques and practices you can use every day. And, contrary to popular belief, it is not all about denial of enjoyment and being an emotionless robot; instead, it's about not letting emotions control you and about appreciating things more by contemplating (and sometimes experiencing) their absence. Of course, reading the whole book is a much better and complete explanation.

I highly recommend this book. I haven't adopted the philosophy completely, but I do think about it frequently. I have experienced the benefits of occasional or periodic abstention and testing of willpower. Other people don't always get it, though, and in fact the author advises not talking about your Stoic practice too much, since a cursory explanation can easily give people the wrong idea. This is a book I would consider actually buying and re-reading.

We Are the Ants

by Shaun David Hutchinson

Twice I've pondered reading this guy's other book, The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley, but the jacket blurb doesn't quite click with me somehow. I had a similar "iffy" feeling about this book too, and I'm still not sure why I decided to go for it this time.

Anyway, this book is a mixed bag of nuts. I could see teens really liking it, though. I didn't find the alien abduction element very convincing, especially since it was kind of just dropped at the very end. (Was it real or his imagination? Or mental illness? When he had a breakdown and went for help, why was he only in the hospital for three days?) Some of the things characters did or said didn't seem realistic to me. In addition to the aliens and "would you save the world if you could" motif, the author repeated a couple other unrelated metaphors that should have been one-offs. I was also bothered by some basic factual errors (for example, Andromeda is not a star, it's a galaxy), but others might not notice or be troubled because they're incidental and not integral to the plot.

Could have been much, much better with some editing, but I guess publishers don't do much of that anymore. I'm grading it "needs improvement," but in the current climate of lower standards it probably would get a "satisfactory" or better from a lot of people.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Quick zine run-down

Jennifer Love Hewitt Times Infinity, by Kevin Fanning
An exquisite collection of micro-stories featuring the inimitable JLH. Je ne sais quois, but she's got it. So bad she's good, so ridiculous she's awesome. She's like Alyssa Milano for a younger generation, so who better to be the subject of an homage in zine format?

Meen Comics Goes to the Opera, by Trixie Biltmore
Funny commentary about seeing a show and going behind the scenes at Portland Opera. It's got me kind of thinking maybe opera is, like JLH, so ridiculous it's awesome?

Painful Vices: A Tale of Bad Habits, by Lisa Rosalie Eisenberg
I'm a fan of all Lisa's comics that I've read. The title of this one is pretty self-explanatory, so I'll just add that this time around she's outdone herself with the artwork, particularly in depicting emotions with subtle facial expressions.

Le Croisic: Our Night in a French Phone Booth and Other Stories, bu Justin Hall
Gay, punk and zine-y, what more could anyone want? The title's "other stories" include an internet minister officiating a same-sex wedding in San Francisco dressed as Green Lantern, and a dude remembering his abusive closeted high school boyfriend.

Oh, dear, it's been so long since I started this post. I've completely forgotten some of these zines and how I felt about them. This post is also making me a little sad by reminding me what I'm missing by no longer interacting with the library's zine collection in an official capacity. I could make an effort to read more zines on my own, but gosh and golly there are so may other things on my to-read list. First-world problems, amiright?

Wuvable Oaf #1-3, by Ed Luce
Are they zines, are they floppies? Now they're all together in a graphic novel with actual hardcover! Life is never boring for this cuddly and sweet great big hairy bear of a guy looking for love and kitties.

Come On Down: true game show tales by winners, losers, viewers, & folks behind the scenes, edited by Matt Carman
I was in the audience of a game show during eighth grade, and about 10 years ago I was obsessed with The Price Is Right and made plans to spend a couple weeks in the LA area studying grocery prices. Alas, I never came up with a clever enough tee-shirt slogan, which is the key to being selected as a contestant (unless you happen to have a military uniform). Anyway, enough about me... the title of this zine tells you what you need to know, so I'll just add that I liked it and I think you will too.

Corpoland and Chumptown, by Skylaar Amann
Two excellent, mostly visual zines: one is a satirical look at the workplace, one lampoons the hipster culture of Portland. I'll let you guess which is which.

Portland's Black Panthers, by Sarah Mirk and Khris Soden
Part of the Oregon History Comics series, so quality is assured. My only regret is that it's so short, but at least it's an introduction to a little-known bit of local history. (Although how "little" depends on whom one asks, I suppose.)

Under the Arch: A DIY Guide to Reno, edited by Sarah Lillegard
This zine briefly had me convinced Reno was the new Portland. (But wasn't Boise supposed to be the new Portland? Or was it Asheville, N.C.?) Maybe not; maybe it's still the best kept secret, not yet spoiled by hipsters and Bay Area telecommuters.

Backstage Past vol. 2, by Orly MC
Don't remember specifics, such as what bands are included, but the stories are enjoyable enough, even if you're not a huge music fan who tries to sneak onto tour buses.

The Prince Zine, by Joshua James Amberson
I actually learned stuff about Prince and his musical empire by reading this zine. Not that I was any sort of Prince expert or aficionado beforehand, but I like a good nonfiction zine that teaches me something new.

God Is Disappointed in You, by Mark Russell
Another zine project that culminated in a hardcover book. Every part of the Bible retold in simple, contemporary language — with humor! But not, so far as I have read, any disdain for Christian beliefs.

Bucko, by Jeff Parker and Erica Moen
This mini-comic zine grew into a book too! All the cool kids are doing it. I haven't read the whole book, just this zine, so I don't know where the full story goes. This part involves a hangover, a job interview, intestinal distress, and a dead body.

Radio: Truly Crucial Rock n Roll #2, by Mark Rudolph and Kevin Cross
I have zero memory of this one. [sad trombone sound]

Angry Dad vs. Gay Son, by Will Varner
A coming out story in words and pictures. It might even have a fold-out poster, or I might be mixing it up with a different zine. I remember a silver and purple palette.

Think It Over: an introduction to the Industrial Workers of the World, by Tim Acott
Don't recall much here either. One of the first zines I ever read was written by someone who was working as a union organizer. Along with radical politics, labor history and organizing is a slender but sturdy thread in zine-world.

Portland Oregon Hiphop: four essays on style and place, by Martha Grover
Even the whitest major city in the U.S. has a hip hop scene. This zine only skims the surface. I had hoped for more depth, but it's a good start.

Bisclavret, by Marie de France
[more sad trombone sounds] My library quit doing subject cataloging of zines, and also quit adding staff-written summaries, so I can't tell what this one is about. It does have the call number for mini-comics, though. While the zine collection is primarily a browsing collection, I still think some cataloging is worthwhile, especially since the collection is spread over multiple locations. But since when has anyone listened to me?

My Every Single Thought, by Corinne Mucha
No recollections and minimal cataloging here too. Mini-comic about being a single person, a subject close to my (cold, withered) heart, but apparently not particularly memorable.

What Were You Raised by Wolves? by Vera Brosgol
Another mini-comic I don't recall. But I've heard the young adult graphic novel Anya's Ghost is very good.

Why Can Everybody Fart Except for Me? [unknown]
My library doesn't have this zine at all anymore, so I don't even know who made it. Yes, I'm too lazy to google.

Monday, February 29, 2016

What Belongs to You

by Garth Greenwell

I've been stalling on writing about this book because it is so damn good and I feel as if I could write so much. The writing in this book is so fantastic that I'm jealous. (That one short story I wrote was supposed to be like this book, which in fact began its life as a short story.) It's not about the plot; it's about the "feels," the character's stream of consciousness, and the depth of a moment. The story is about a gay man, an American living in an Eastern European capital, and his fraught relationship with a young hustler, but the emotional timbre of the novel will resonate with anyone who's ever felt drawn to someone tragically wrong for them.

What Belongs to You isn't very long, but it's packed full of beautiful language and evocative imagery. I found myself re-reading certain passages to savor them, and I even wrote down a couple that struck a chord with me: "I was being shifted by the passage of time from one category of erotic object to another"; and "how helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn't welcomed, even if that welcome is contrived." I could have collected more.

I read in an interview of the author that gay life in Bulgaria reminded him of his early gay life in rural Kentucky in the 1990s: the secrecy, shame, desire, furtive sex, emptiness, fear, rejection, repression. Gay life may be rosier and freer in parts of the world, but gay liberation hasn't reached everywhere. This idea came back to me while reading a section in which the protagonist is recalling his youth and the realization of his sexual orientation, and how it altered his relationships with friends, family, even himself. Amid a rush of sadness and personal recollection, I had an epiphany: that feeling of alienation and difference, the sense of rejection is not and cannot ever be a relic of the past, even in more liberal places; it's mirrored in the self-realization of every homosexual — whether at age 10, 14, 18 or 50 — that he is fundamentally different from most of the people he knows, that he is not like his father; no amount of social acceptance or tolerance will change that simple fact.

Miss Lonelyhearts

by Nathanael West

This story about a man who writes a newspaper advice column posing as "Miss Lonelyhearts" in 1933 is quite unlike the story you might easily imagine being made into a rom-com movie today. It is a bleak black comedy, further colored by the casual misogyny and classism of the period. Y'know, just some hard-boiled men belting back rye, neat, and joking about the usefulness of corrective gang-rape when women "get ideas" and try to succeed on their own. (Yes, really.)

The main character has the odd moment of humanity here and there, struggling with the real pathos of the letters sent in by readers for the advice column that was meant to be a gimmick to increase circulation. But he's a narcissist and a drunk besides, and he's cruel to the only people who are genuinely nice to him.

So, I suppose it's interesting as an artifact and surely could be interesting to study, but this book is nothing to read if you're just looking to pass the time, even if you think you like dark and challenging literature.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Black Sun Rising

When True Night Falls

Crown of Shadows

by C.S. Friedman

The first book in this fantasy trilogy originally came out in 1991. I read it based on a recommendation from a library patron. I've gone through fantasy reading phases before but hadn't read any in a while, and this series got me kind of back into it.

In the prologue, a ship full of Earthlings is marooned on a distant planet; strange horrors haunt the night, not just in their dreams; a rogue crew member commits a desperate and inexplicable act of terrorism... more about that (much, much) later.

Fast forward who knows how many years, and the books have great world-building and compelling characters. The usual tropes of dark "magic" versus more benign forces, man versus nature, the price of power, the power of love and faith — and of pain, retribution, and loss — are freshened up with a brash almost-anti-hero, a seductive villain, a planet suffused with strange forces, and, most especially, a unique twist on how the "magic" works, who can access it and how. The setting is unusual too, being on the one hand future-y and on another planet but with an orphaned and more primitive medieval-y culture that one expects from fantasy fiction.

Each book repeats, in its own way, the motif of a struggle to heal the aftermath of a terrible transgression and trauma, and then the trilogy as a whole closes the loop with a character who makes the ultimate sacrifice to defeat the most powerful evil. Or does it? I sort of felt like the crashed spaceship of the prologue never really got picked up again, even though certain things were strongly implied, and even though I made my own conclusions... but maybe my confusion was partly due to the fact I read the three books over several years, so I surely forgot things and probably missed some references.

Anyway, I heartily recommend this series to anyone who likes fantasy fiction or wants to give it a try.

Self Comes to Mind: constructing the conscious brain

by Antonio Damasio

I love-love-loved Damasio's 2003 book Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (which instigated my interest in Spinoza, whose biography I recently read). This book is good too, but quite a bit more challenging science-wise. Probably his other two books, from 2000 and 2005, are more up my alley. But I'm glad that I persevered and finished this book. Doing so was a satisfying achievement on a purely intellectual level, and I learned a lot from this book that builds on what I've learned (from Damasio and others) about biology, neurophysiology, my self and my emotions.

In this book, Damasio builds his theory of consciousness from the starting point of a single neuron all the way to the detailed architecture of the human brain's 100 trillion connections, explaining how the layering and nesting of neuronal structures and the recursive, self-referential quality of those neurons and structures generate the seemingly incorporeal idea of a self.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Drifter. Vol. 1, Out of the night

by Ivan Brandon, Nic Klein, Clem Robins

Space western-ish; sort-of zombies; transubstantial aliens (though technically the humans are the real aliens here); living death or life after death; redemption... there's a lot going on here, potentially. This ambitious graphic novel starts off a series with promise, but I was a bit frustrated by the experience of reading just the first volume. The many openings, many questions raised, and many themes left me confused at times and wanting more resolution. This series clearly will be epic in scope, so it's somewhat unrealistic of me to expect resolution, but some other series-es manage to have a more self-contained story in the opener alongside all the world-building and set up for the longer narrative. Maybe this aspect will not bother more avid readers of GNs, but I'm not accustomed to it. I suspect my interest and attention will have wandered by the time the next volume comes to hand, but maybe someday I'll be able to read the whole saga at once.

A Sailor's Story

by Stan Glanzman

Already forgot where I heard about this graphic novel, but I was intrigued right away. My fascination with sailors is a close neighbor of my fascination with prisons and boarding schools, and the history angle — both WW II and comics history — is a great selling point too. I even went to the trouble of doing an interlibrary loan request, since my library only has a couple books with excerpts.

After serving in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, Stan Glanzman became a Golden Age comic book legend, illustrating numerous adventure and sci-fi and dinosaur comics. His stories of wartime were originally published in '87-'89 and recently re-published. The new edition is full of praise from other comics giants, both new and old. (I only skimmed the intro material, so apologies if I'm getting any of these details wrong.)

The edition I read includes a "second" book, A Sailor's Story: Winds, Dreams, and Dragons, which actually seems choppier and as if it were sketches and vignettes that got refined into the "first" book. The two have a lot of overlap, and the first is more of a narrative and more enjoyable. This look at the daily life of a WW II sailor is at times lighthearted, showing young men working and goofing off. The work of running a ship is mundane and banal but also tense and alien, juxtaposed with the brutality and horror of war. Being relatively short, however, this book only offers glimpses of the horror, so much sinking and bombing and death, so many civilians' lives and homes destroyed too, and ships that sank, killing hundreds of sailors, just because of storms.

Thumbs up all around for story, art, historical significance.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Fraud: essays

by David Rakoff

I think I heard on The Daily Show (with John Stewart) about this author dying. I somehow hadn't heard of him, despite his being on various NPR programs and me being a public radio nerd. The first book by David Rakoff that I read was so so so not what I was expecting. This book is what I had in mind: fantastic writing and wry, intelligent humor. Imagine a more literary David Sedaris. (Who is great in his own way, but his writing is pared down and utilitarian.) Here, Rakoff is writing about his own life, things he's actually done and with the theme of being an outsider, but he writes so well he could write about anything. (Except that other book, to which I say "meh.")

A strong recommendation for those who enjoy the real life wit and humor essay genre and those story-telling programs on the public radio.


by Neal Shusterman

I remember this book being an "If you liked Divergent" suggestion and maybe part of the deluge of imitators, but maybe he was going to write it anyway, or already had written it when Divergent blew up. (Or was it "If you liked The Hunger Games"? Was Divergent a Hunger Games imitator?) So, yeah, near-/unspecified-future teen dystopia but actually a very different plot than the other two. Not super original, but a good new twist, and Shusterman is a talented writer. While it didn't blow me away, I would definitely recommend it to someone into the genre.

Clan of the Nakagamis

by Homerun Ken

Spotted this one browsing. The "Juné Yaoi Manga" imprint caught my eye, as I've read some top quality stuff from them. Also, the subject heading "teacher-student relationships" didn't not interest me. This book is kind of a mess, though. A lot of characters, weird supernatural happenings, organized crime (maybe?), and not enough sexy yaoi times. I will not be reading the sequel.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The History of Beauty

edited by Umberto Eco

With short chapters and a wealth of captioned illustrations, this book is much less academic than it could be and is therefore open to a wider audience. It's still rather cerebral stuff, though, despite its unsurprising preoccupation with art and artifice, so it's not quite casual reading purely for pleasure. If the book were smaller and less heavy, I'd say it would make a good toilet book; instead, it's probably a good waiting room or coffee table book. Reading straight through isn't necessary, but going that route (as I did) could be very rewarding. While the book tells a coherent and linear story about the idea and ideals of beauty, it is a history of Western aesthetics constructed from from fragments and vignettes. A good book for someone interested in art, philosophy, and/or history, and for those looking to stock their trivia arsenals.


by Charlotte Roche

A few years ago someone told me this book was being made into a movie, but I was doubtful, just from having flipped through and read a few bits. I mean, the protagonist starts talking about her hemorrhoids in the first sentence, and later she talks about liking to have sex while she's menstruating and how great it is to get the blood all over the place. And that's barely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. So much more "ew" in this book.

I think my friend was confusing Wetlands with Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner (who isn't German like Charlotte Roche but does have a Germanic sounding name, as does her book's protagonist), which actually was made into a movie. Both the film and book Diary of a Teenage Girl were criticized for their frank portrayal of teen female sexuality. Wetlands offers sort of the same kind of look at a teenage woman's physicality, turned up to 11.

As disgusting as this book is at times, it isn't gratuitous. The author is going to extremes to make a point (and the fact that this book seems extreme is part of the point) about the cultural treatment of women's bodies and sexuality: how they're purified and polluted, policed and protected, exposed and shielded and shamed. This attitude is very different from the way men, even teenagers and children, are explicitly and implicitly encouraged and praised in their sexual appetites and bodily functions, secretions, and smells. The difference is much more fundamental and insidious than "boys can be dirty, girls should smell pretty" or "guys are studs, girls are sluts."

Anyway, this book is a fairly quick read. It's viscerally shocking while also being challengingly subtle, layered, and powerful. The author never really tells you the point she's trying to make, she just throws a lot at the reader to see what will stick. The reader's reaction to all the ick is part of the book's message.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Nicholas Nickleby

by Charles Dickens

also known as...

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby: Containing a Faithful Account of the Fortunes, Misfortunes, Uprisings, Downfallings, and Complete Career of the Nickleby Family

edited by "Boz."
with illustrations by "Phiz."

After reading and loving Bleak House, I had the idea to read a classic every year. I've been thinking about how to inject some diversity into that project, but life is short and I like Dickens. Also, I saw a bit of the 2002 film starring the adorable young Charlie Hunnam (before he got ripped), and I was tickled by his pronunciation of Dotheboys Hall (not the way people usually say Sotheby's, as in the auction house, but more like "do the boys") — not to mention cute little (also pre-ripped) Jamie Bell as the worshipful Smike.

I've also seen the 1977 TV mini-series, and I found the book to be much funnier than either of these two screen adaptations. Don't get me wrong, it's tragedy at every turn for the poor Nicklebys (though everything works out in the end), but the book has a good number of humorous (tragi-comic, if you must) episodes. The jolly John Browdie is always good for a laugh, and the Squeerses are so vile as to border on parody. (Not to say the infamous Yorkshire schools weren't a real social ill being criticized by Dickens.)

Overall, though, this book is not one I'd recommend to someone just getting started with Dickens or early Victorian novels. If you've got a taste for such things, however, you'll find much to enjoy. Some critics have disdained Nicholas Nickleby's obvious good-vs-evil plot and unrefined characterizations, but simplicity has its virtues too. I'd rather have really good strawberry ice cream instead of a so-so maple and fennel or a challenging bone marrow and peppercorn. (You know who you are, Salt & Straw!)


by Nick Sousanis

This comic book (aka sequential art, visual narrative, graphic novel, etc.) is about the power and potential of visual communication techniques to open new perspectives. It aims to be rather intellectual by quoting lots of intellectuals and academics (philosophers, linguists, and semioticians — oh my!) and referring to them usually by last name only. (Because of course everyone knows who Gilles Deleuze is. Do you even deconstruct, bro?)

The author/artist does a great job of combining and manipulating text and image in unexpected and innovative ways that are also useful to understanding, rather than just technically virtuosic or unnecessarily complex. He presents some very interesting ideas but also a lot of "undergraduate" philosophizing and naive opining about how conformity sucks, man. I guess I'm just old, jaded, and stuck in "flattened" ways of thinking and looking, but to me the author's line of reasoning seems to frequently mistake metaphor for reality and/or conflate metaphor (a vehicle for meaning) with actual meaning (the content of metaphor).

I took some notes, and could have taken more, but, in another example of my jadedness, I don't really care enough to go into that kind of detail here. I'll just say that one particular weakness is the author's failure to grasp certain neurobiological realities. He rejects one facile explanation of right- and left-brain difference only to substitute an equally simplistic interpretation that still ignores the fundamental connectedness and interactivity of the two hemispheres. Most appalling, given his Deleuzean leanings, is his overlooking the fact that the human brain is the ultimate self-referential rhizomatic structure! (If you know your Deleuze and Guattari, you'll get the significance or rhizomes.)

Anyway, despite my quibbles, Unflattening is a worthwhile addition to the body of works legitimizing comics (by any name) as not only an art form but a vehicle for information and ideas.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Beautiful and the Damned: a portrait of the new India

by Siddhartha Deb

I'd always meant to read Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, but I never got around to it, and now my library doesn't have it anymore. Jeez, it came out only 10 years ago!

But I did get to read this book, which is pretty decent and not too long. Each chapter looks at a different person or place (if I'm recalling correctly) that highlights a particular aspect of the exuberantly chaotic social landscape of modern India: literally a billion people, some fantastically rich and many desperately poor, a crowded country in a crowded part of the world. Not an exhaustive survey, just some interesting vignettes; a different author would have found different things interesting — no shortage of things to look at or ways of looking at India.

Between You & Me: confessions of a Comma Queen

by Mary Norris

I've been called a "grammar nazi" plenty of times. Language evolves, casual and colloquial is fine for some contexts, let's not get into all that...

This book is not so much a rant about grammar or style, and it's not a catalog of rules or mistakes. While it does delve into some of the finer details of correct* grammar, this book also shares a lot about the author's career at the New Yorker magazine and people she's known over the years — some of which is quite interesting and most of which is at least a little interesting, but these stories can seem boring and unnecessary if you thought you were just going to be reading about grammar.

I felt as if I didn't like the book much immediately after reading it, but I like it more in retrospect. In particular, I'm somewhat enamored of her obsession with pencils and pencil sharpeners, and I enjoyed the discussion of the history of Webster's dictionary/-ies and the various editions.

* Style- and grammar-wise, the New Yorker is mostly very conservative, but it also has those lovely, quirky house-style things, such as the diaeresis in words like reëlection, that are unique to the magazine.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Newton's Apple and Other Myths about Science

edited by Ronald L. Number and Kostas Kampourakis

I think I jumped on this one just from the title. At first I was puzzled that my library only had one copy of it, because popular science books tend to circulate well. I figured out why once I started reading: this book is not about people's incorrect knowledge of science (eg., most people think Schrödinger's cat is 50% alive and 50% dead, when really its status is indeterminate), it's about myths within the history of science and the pedagogy of science as a body of knowledge, a methodology, and/or a way of thinking. So, pretty academic and not so much intended for the lay reader.

Here is a series of quotes from the book that give an idea of how it's written and what it's about:

"What exactly do we mean by 'myths in science'? Often we mean the propagation of stories that are at odds with the historical record -- be it because their protagonists have specific views on how science has (or ought to have) developed or because teachers and textbook writers find them educationally expedient."

"Myths, as the French linguist Roland Barthes (1915-1980) put it in his Mythologies, are not simply inaccurate statements about the world; they are a specific kind of speech. Myths are a way of collectively expressing something about values, beliefs, and aspirations, even though, taken literally, the content of myth is not true."

"Part of the problem reflects a general limitation of all textbooks. Textbook writers, in consideration of space limitations and intended audience, present science as briefly and simply as possible. This systematic omission of details regarding the process of science has the unfortunate consequence of portraying the results of science as certain, rather than tentative and the object of continued investigation."

Even though this book is very different from what I expected, I rather enjoyed it. The academic tone isn't all that bad, the chapters — each one dedicated to a particular myth — are short, and the entire book is of modest length. Good to stretch the brain muscles and feel like a smartypants. I learned new things and deepened my understanding of others.

Into the Unknown: how great explorers found their way by land, sea and air

by Stewart Ross
illustrated by Stephen Biesty

Such an amazing book! Cataloged for kids but so much for adults to enjoy too. Lovely detailed drawings and big fold-out pages about fourteen amazing journeys, from a Greek sailor in 340 BC to the moon landing in 1969, along with explanatory text and informative sidebars. This book would be an excellent gift for that smart kid you know; even if it's beyond their current reading level, they can geek out over the pictures and grow into it. Adults will appreciate this book but probably would want something heftier for their own shelves.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Assholes Finish First

by Tucker Max

I enjoyed the raunchy, obnoxious comedy of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, so I was prepared again to ignore the fundamental — and self-identified — asshole-ism of the author in order to get some laughs at the expense of others. His second outing is, not surprisingly, not as good as the first, though (because?) it covers very similar ground. Call it the sophomore slump, or maybe just the novelty wearing off. To be fair, I did laugh out loud more than once.

I'm not particularly inclined to read his third book, but I still want to see the movie based on the first. And the third book, if I were stuck at the airport and had it to read, I'm sure it would help pass the time with at least a few chuckles.

You Got Nothing Coming: notes from a prison fish

by Jimmy A. Lerner

Let's not try to figure out why I'm so fascinated by life in prison. Let's just agree that this is an interesting book, very gritty and honest and real, and it scratched most of my itch. It's no literary masterpiece, but the writing is fine and appropriately straightforward. This true story is not boring.

And let's not discuss the problems with the American criminal justice system and the correctional industry. Let's just agree that life in prison in the United States is very rough and could stand to be improved a lot without lessening the intended punishment.

Blind Descent: the quest to discover the deepest place on earth

by James M. Tabor

Since it's about going down instead of up, this book could sort of be the opposite of Touching the Void, or one of the other books about climbing Mt. Everest. It's pretty well-written, mostly not boring, and manages to convey the excitement and danger of the expeditions even to someone not involved or particularly interested in spelunking. Solid recommendation if you like travel and adventure, extreme sports, survival stories.

My one complaint is sort of a technicality: if the cave starts up the side of a mountain and the bottom of it is at the level of a valley floor, no matter how far it is from top to bottom, it just doesn't feel as "deep" as something below sea level. I've probably just read Journey to the Center of the Earth too many times.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Single Digits: in praise of small numbers

by Marc Chamberland

Another book that is not what I'd imagined it would be. The intro says that, yes, it gets into some pretty advanced math, but also says that one can gloss over the finer details of the equations without losing the greater sense of the explanations, which are written such that a 12-year-old can understand — to which I call shenanigans! I admit my math is a little rusty, but I'd be surprised if any twelfth-graders would get this stuff.

One particularly annoying thing is the frequent use of "nontrivial" to describe numbers or equations or whatever without ever defining it. I made it through a semester of college-level calculus (barely) without ever encountering that terminology.

So, totally not for beginners, no matter how intriguing the book description sounds. Perhaps someone will write a book about the interesting qualities of numbers that really is for the layperson.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Routes of Man: how roads are changing the world and the way we live today

by Ted Conover

I had such high hopes for this book! Hopes that were neither fulfilled nor fully dashed.

I was disappointed that the book doesn't have more of an overview or history of road building and civilization. Instead, each chapter looks at a particular road (not always what we Americans might imagine) and it's current significance in a globalized/globalizing world. I remember each chapter being interesting in and of itself, along the lines of a longer magazine article, but the book as a whole isn't what I wanted it to be. I think maybe I didn't quite finish, or perhaps did some skimming.

A fine book, though, especially if you like travel writing and have an interest in the developing world.

Call Me Home

by Megan Kruse

I hemmed and hawed on this book for a while after the first review I read. Eventually, I decided the story of a young gay man in the rural Pacific Northwest was enough of a hook for me. Even after I checked it out, though, it took me a while to get around to reading it.

At first, I was stunned and thrilled by the writing, which seemed fresh and tender and emotionally taut. That initial blush of amazement wore off somewhat, but I still give this book great marks overall. It's a tragic story, with domestic violence and desperate choices, wrenching betrayals and hopeful reunions. Point of view alternates among three characters, sometimes unevenly in terms of length. At times I wasn't feeling the sections from the mother's POV, but ultimately her story becomes a convincingly difficult picture of a woman in a destructive relationship.

The young man's storyline is thoroughly explored, but I was never 100% sold. His relationship with a closeted construction foreman seems too good to be true, even while it is clearly doomed, but his emotions and longing are realistic. The third narrator is the younger sister, whose sections are told in first person, lending them more immediacy. She's less fully-drawn and in ways more intriguing, partly but not only by virtue of being young and half-baked.