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.