Thursday, October 27, 2011

Edible words

Book: Edible Stories

Author: Mark Kurlansky

Published: 2010 (Riverhead Books)

Pages: 265

Food is such a good revelation of our human natures because it’s a necessity that we can dress up to a luxury, the most raw biological process turned into high elaborate ceremony. Our relationships to it bring us together as cultures and push us apart into individuals as we make weird faces at our friends when they use too much ketchup on their fries. What, when, and how someone eats says a lot about them and their worldview. Also, a lot of it is delicious.

Kurlansky manages to wring some fleeting profundity from that line of thought in most of these stories. He uses recurring characters that slip and slide in and out of each other’s food lives to weave a sense of continuity that doesn’t stick well but provides nice consistent background in vignettes. The first one, about a guy who gets amnesia and loses his senses of smell and taste from falling in a hole, is my favorite. I like the semi-detached way his thought process is described and how it re-shapes his world from the inside out. In later stories, he ends up becoming a nationwide Food Network-type star and is scared to death that someone will find out his secret.

The story about a lady who goes to a Yankees game with her one-night stand and is bothered that he wants to eat a fancy spread he brought from home instead of ballpark hotdogs is interesting, too, but it never shows any glimpse of the absurdity that glimmers in unexpected but welcome places through the rest of the book.

The food is never as important as I think it will be in each story. I was hoping for more reliance on food as character building or explaining; but I wasn’t disappointed in the book as a whole. It was one of those books that in my head gets read by a soft, low voice with the slightest hint of a British accent. Translated into the real world that means I stayed pretty much interested the whole way through.

In this picture, the thing that looks like a hair is actually an antenna stuck to the sticky bit where the price sticker used to be. I finished this book the first night I spent in my new apartment and the first time I saw a bug in there, so, you know. Whap. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

DC's turn to save the universe

Book: The New Frontier (Absolute Edition)

Writer and illustrator: Darwyn Cooke

Colorist: Dave Stewart

Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher

Published: 2006 (DC Comics)

Pages: 405 (of story)

Bright colors, bold lines, sharply defined edges, Wonderwoman showing Superman the relativity of his strictly held values, origin stories that wind around each other and end up meeting at the Center to save the day from a giant sea monster, believable dialogue and introspection, investigative reporters who are more batshit insane about danger than the heroes they’re covering (hi, Lois Lane!)—yep, this comic collection has it all.

It better; it’s nothing less than the whole DC universe coming together. And that gets confusing sometimes, especially when you read giant chunks of it in one sitting like I did and always feel like you’re racing through the words without really studying the pictures so you force yourself to slow down like I do. The stories and voices do jump around but are easy enough to distinguish from each other, especially when the heroes start joining forces to save the world. (Don’t you love it when that happens?)

One irritating thing, though: a lot of the women have a close-up with the same expression. This one.

I’m not really complaining, because it’s adorable.  

Aw, yeah. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I give in to Prachett pressure.

Book: Making Money

Author: Terry Pratchett

Published: 2007 (Harper)

Pages: 404

Of course I like Terry Prachett. He prods at social and government structures (like the concept of paper money and the gold standard) with offhand British humor, reluctant heroes and glare-y villains who secretly know they’re a little ridiculous which makes them try all the more to compensate, general fantasy-tinged shenanigans, and a small mutt dog as majority shareholder of a bank that falls into the hands of the postmaster general who used to be a studied criminal until he was hanged only enough to let him escape into a different name.

Psychologically, I had to get over three things:
  • My disinclination to read anything of a series, especially a giant multi-book and –decade fantasy series like the Discworld novels, aka my horror of reading epics out of turn and missing vital things just because the library doesn’t have the whole set and how will I know to invest in the series if I don’t read all of them in the right order and ahhhh! First world bibliophile problems make the Constant Reader brain melt.
  • Overhyping of Pratchett, aka I’ve heard so much good that there’s no way he could be as witty as everyone keeps telling me. But he is. Like Douglas Adams, only with a little more sex and slightly less overt wordplay (subliminal pun count could still be anyone’s game).
  •  Wondering why I hadn’t yet read this, aka I vaguely remember buying this in the school bookstore like two years ago and if I haven’t managed it yet there must have been something TERRIBLY WRONG with the first sentence or something. Turns out my excuse was “or something,” which means none at all.

So. I understand the Prachett lure now. (Every time a book blogger types that, another fantasy author gets his/her black oversized cowboy hat.)

Friday, October 14, 2011

More plain good stuff

Book: The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories
Author: Carson McCullers
Published: 1971 (this edition, Bantam)

These read as Flannery O’Connor light, as in these stories strongly remind me of that more famous authoress and her favorite tropes without making me feel quite as depressed about mankind. O’Connor’s hypothesis seems to be that all people are evil if you give them a chance; McCullers concentrates on pure oddness that still goes bad a lot of times but also has redemptive qualities that nobody knows what to do with.

There’s a detached air of mystery about all the characters, which include a tough country broad and her hunchback distant cousin (in the title novella “The Ballad of the Sad Café”), a young piano prodigy who has to deal with giant expectations that she can’t fulfill (in “Wunderkind”), a transplanted European music teacher with delusions of grandeur that bother the hell out of her new boss for reasons he can’t explain (in “Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland”—I call dibs on that band name), and a jockey who is losing his touch and gaining weight and frustrated to the point of violence about it all (in “The Jockey”).

They’re interesting stories mined from everyday life and told in beautifully simple prose. I can't get enough of that. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"A great girlfriend gift"

Book: Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom

Author: Kristin van Ogtrop

Published: 2010 (Little, Brown and Company)

Pages: 259

Awe: the state in which I hold working parents. I have taken care of kids (daycare summer job) and am right now easing myself into a professional life; separately, each of those things have exhausted my punk ass to the point where I am really, sincerely, bewilderingly curious as to how the hell people do both at the same time without keeling over.

But: everything I’ve read about it has such a well-worn fondly crazy lightheartedness that I can’ tell what’s exaggerated for laughs and what’s damped down for sentiment. Van Ogtrop’s stories don’t go any deeper than the rest of them.

Can: it be something you just have to DO, like moving your legs when you want to learn how to run, or when you discover that nobody actually knows how to be an official adult and everyone just their way into it until something clicks?

Does: the blurb that says “The ideal girlfriend gift!” mean a great present for a significant other or something to give a female friend? Either way sounds a little insulting and presumptuous.

Everything: this does not make me want children. Like, at all. I’ll settle for cooing at them while their mothers are preoccupied, thanks, so maybe both of us can visit the other side of life for the brief second that will be all we need. Also, I wanna play with the Legos.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The movie might be better.

Book: Election

Author: Tom Perrotta

Published: Damn. I don’t know.

Pages: 200

Well, that was sort of shitty.

I’ve wanted to read Election for awhile, ever since I heard about the movie version and how good it’s supposed to be. Of course my first instinct was to think “I bet the book’s better” and then avoid both until I saw the book in a secondhand store and sat down to read the whole thing during the four hours I thought I had work which is actually tomorrow but I was already out and what the hell, home didn’t expect me back until 5 p.m.

This story’s concept is interesting and has a lot of natural dramatic potential. A well-liked high school teacher throws away two ballots to let his favorite student candidate win the election for school president. The story unfolds from all the major character’s perspectives, in clumps that were nicely organized by person but too short to allow any real characterization growth. (The janitor who finds the thrown-away ballots is more effective in his two or three paragraphs than the other characters who’ve had the whole book to stretch out.)

But Perrotta once again disappointed me with his lack of depth and subtle details that would’ve made everything way more dynamic. His Little Children is like this, too, another tension-filled conceit fumbled through flat characters and an environment just a little too generic to care about. And in both books, the characters are largely defined through badly timed sex with the wrong people.

That last would be a good thing, except it’s both non-explicit and has nothing to do with advancing the main plot. I require at least one kind of cheap thrills from marginal writing.

Sigh. Maybe the movie’s better. (Books, you make me sad when you make me say that.)  

Monday, October 3, 2011

Lonely vs. alone

Book: The Late Bloomer’s Revolution

Author: Amy Cohen

Published: 2007 (Hyperion)

Pages: 288

Lonely and alone aren’t the same thing. I think people confuse them too much, especially in artistic depictions of normal life. People are social animals, right? So we’re all miserable when we have no one else around us, so for happy endings everyone has to be paired up with his or her sex of choice. Yes?

No, not really. Amy Cohen finally realizes that, and she made me cry while going through her process.

Really, it’s your standard woman-discovers-herself-through-dating-way-past-when-she-thought-she-would-be-settled-down arc, thrown together with learning how to ride a bike at age 35 and being okay when her fiancé left her because he didn’t want kids.

That was the ending. Her fiancé went to live on the opposite coast without her after she gave him an ultimatum: go and live without her or stay in New York with her. And it didn’t destroy her, and I wanted to shout this ending in Hollywood’s direction so maybe they’d get a good idea or two. Woman discovers hard but necessary decision actually makes her grow! Yes!

Her book made me cry because it made me think about what being lonely really means. It’s not something that can just magically go away with the addition of another warm body; she was loneliest when she was trying to make connections work with the wrong people. And that is just an awful feeling, this giant black hole that opens up in time and swallows everything until you’re exhausted and bored and have no idea what to do next so you don’t do anything, which makes it worse.

Cohen’s a writer good at setting up empathy by simply telling her story. She’s also wearing a tank top, jeans, and Converse in her author photo, so I feel like we’d get along. That means she’s done her job right.    

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Book: The Destroyer #47: Dying Space

Author: Warren Murphy

Published: 1982 (Pinnacle Books)

Pages: 196

Can fun writing be automatically thought of as good because it makes the reading experience a pleasure, even if that pleasure is laughing hard at seriously-meant dialogue and plot twists?

I think there’s inherent value in something like that, mostly because this book kept me very amused for a couple hours. It’s pure paperback pulp about a missile-controlling robot that is accidentally brought to life by two garbage men. The robot skins (!) one of the garbage men and takes his form to stay unnoticed while he goes to destroy Remo, a wiseass assassin who…you know, I don’t know what Remo did to the robot to piss him off so much. It was covered in previous books.

Anyway, they all end up in Moscow so the robot can stop the Russians from firing a nuclear missile—at the moon. The moon. Not at anything more alarming. Which, to whatever astrophysicists are reading this to keep their minds off NASA, I know blowing up the moon would screw us over down here. But in an indirect way that I’m sure y’all could figure out how we could live with. In this book, Russia is just so jealous of the US’s moon-conquering abilities that it wants to destroy the moon so we won’t have anywhere else to expand our empire. It apparently never crosses their minds to blow up our direct, terrestrial, and no doubt much easier because much closer nerve systems of big cities on either of our coasts.

So that was dumb and took all the tension out of the final couple chapters, which were action-packed and included a drunk randy scientist trying to make up for her unappreciated habits by helping the robot she built and a Russian commander who likes the “kinky boom-boom” Remo apparently stumbled into when he was trying to escape her room.

Two women in power; both of their sexualities are used as jokes meant to break tension. At least they’re both brilliant (when a man isn’t around to make them feel good). Hmpht.

They don’t get to live happily ever after, either, but everybody else does except in the epilogue the robot comes back to life and resolves anew to kill Remo. Of course he does.