Wednesday, February 27, 2013

All the subtly of a psychotic wife

Book: Gone Girl
Author: Gillian Flynn
Published: Random House (2012)

I really don’t get it.

This book has none of the subtly or creepy narrative grace of a good thriller. There’s no evidence or reason for the character changes; there’s no real reason for most of the character choices to begin with. There is no foreshadowing or hints; there are merely circumstances that only suddenly mean things when the protagonist declares them to for no reason mentioned at all until the moment the declaration is needed for the story.

Most of all, there is no true darkness, only blunt psychopathology that’s supposed to be edgy without earning any of it.

I’m being deliberately vague because this is one of the few current best-sellers I’ve gotten around to reading/blogging about. This is the story of a lady kidnapped on her fifth wedding anniversary, her husband’s trip through suspicion, and a reveal that turns everything into petty revenge.

And that’s what I hate about it; it’s really fucking petty. Not just the reveal, but, like, the guy we’re supposed to sympathize with, he quips instead of talking. All the time. Not as little bursting packets of anxiety relief, or when it might reveal anything deep about him or his life or the situation, because that never happens, but because…I don’t know. I got a sinking feeling it was because he’s a young-ish writer and that’s the author’s idea of cool even as being cool would be the last thing on anyone’s mind if they were wrestling with goddamn murder charges.
Everything else I hate about the book comes after the reveal, so I’ll just say none of it is earned and that pisses me off because this might be the only novel some people get around to reading this year and I wish it could be better because the concept is solid but it’s fumbled so badly.

Going back to the library. It’s a checkout.

P.S. Y’all, I’mma end on a happy note and say that holy shit, I finally finished the “old” book pile I’ve been meaning to get through since I graduated college! Hyperspace was the last one, but I thought this post needed some cheerfulness to balance the above paragraphs. Anyhoo, so that’s awesome and means I can get started on the one box, two bags, and whole Library system at my current disposal. Hold on to your butts – we are going even further! Whee!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Space-time explained!

Book: Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension
Author: Michio Kaku
Published: 1994 (Anchor)
Pages: 334

Basically, the laws of physics exist in more dimensions than we’ve been able to measure in, so we’re just now getting the, like, whole picture of why stuff like the theory of relativity actually works and how all the physical laws smooth out when they have more dimensions to express all their parts.

I’m pretty sure that’s the main point of this book. Have I mentioned that I deprived myself of any sort of physics classes by taking AP biology in high school?

So I’m a terrible person to say what level of skillz this book is for. A lot of it reads like the author is going for a mainstream audience, but he’s so jazzed about the implications that he drops into higher math concepts like they’re a native tongue he has to use to explain feelings we don’t have in English. And his metaphors are terrible because they just add extra layers of confusion to simplifying things. For instance, to illustrate how space and geometry can operate in higher dimensions than the ones we perceive, he goes, “Imagine there’s a place called Flatland where everyone is two-dimensional. If one peeled a Flatlander off the piece of paper where he lived, his fellow flatlanders would think he had disappeared into the sky, whereas you would know that he was transported into the third dimension.” That is just as hard to grasp as talking about how a hypercube folds up in the fourth dimension for us – harder, because you have to go through two levels of imagination - pretending you’re a Flatlander to see things from his point of view before you can pretend to wonder why the hell you’re disappearing into a sky you can’t fully see - instead of one, just wondering why the hell the cube you’re looking at seems to have too many sides crammed into too small a visual field.

But other than spending too much effort pretending to be a stick figure, I loved this book.

Kaku might be sort of shitty at teaching physics 101, but he knows the hell out of the higher concepts and lays them out as straightforwardly as I could tell. He also weaves the histories and controversies and implications and cultural impacts and practical applications of the theories into one loose narrative of how humans are trying to conquer time and matter and how close we are to doing it. Wormholes might be real, you guys. And Duchamp painted a crucifixion scene on a teserac (three-dimensional fold-out of a four-dimensional cube). And the universe will probably end in fire (the Big Crunch of all matter trying to squeeze into the hottest dryer’s tiniest lost gym sock), but probably not before we unite all the theories of matter into enough dimensions so they become one and we understand life, the universe, and EVERYTHING.

I still don’t understand string theory, though, because the section that was labeled “Why Strings?” just said that contrary to string theory’s dissenters, strings can be found naturally all in the physical world, like in the shape of our DNA. …Okay, so that proves…something? I don’t know. Please let me know what I’m missing; I want to write a Doctor Who episode about it.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Interesting teenagers turn into standard adults

Book: The Interestings
Author: Meg Wolitzer
Published: Riverhead (April 2013 – advanced reading copy ahoy!)
Pages: 468

Must – resist – pun about – ironic title –

Okay. Urge conquered. But now I’m going to tell you all about why I had to do said conquering in the first place.

The Interestings is about a group of teenagers who meet and become friends at a creative arts summer camp run by two old hippies and a little too much optimism about their talents. It’s one of those intense experiences that seem completely unique (to every teenager they ever happen to), designed to cement a place to look back at and say, “It all started here,” especially to mousy, awkward Jules who blossoms under the guidance of the cool kids. She discovers a budding talent for comedic acting, and she spends all summer nurturing it and trying to be the girlfriend of a talented animator and learning to smoke weed with the golden boy who doesn’t have any direction and trading secrets with his sister and basically coming of age while Nixon resigns.  

That part’s great. I love it because it DOES feel unique; each teen has a slightly off-beat talent they’re convinced will become their whole lives (not acting, but COMEDIC acting; directing; finding a different sort of music to get good at to get out from under the shadow of a famous folk mom...), and the camp is familiar enough to slip right into but has its own weird touches to become its own very specific place (mess hall next to the animation shed…). Nixon’s a little peripheral and I’m not sure why his resignation is so prominent on the book jacket summary, but whatever, establishes the summer camp as a sort of one last timeless escape from the real world before the kids have to grow up.

And then they grow up, and most of their potential gets wasted.

But wait! That’s not the bad part. That’s still a great premise. There is so much poignant irony to be mined from exceptional teenagers growing into regular adults and following their angst about either still trying to do what they love when they realize it’s not actually special or slowly letting go of what they thought were the most important parts of themselves. There’s a line in an AV Club Reasonable Discussions podcast that captures this (and, quite frankly, scares the bejezus out of me): “You are not the same person you are in your thirties as the one you were in your twenties, and those two people may in fact be fundamentally incompatible.”


Notice I said “premise,” though. In execution, the (mostly) failed artistic dreams storylines all flatten out into generic midlife grasping at straws. Even the one dude who makes it, with the awesome last name Figman, turns his success in animation into a general What People Worry About When They Don’t Have to Worry About Money Anymore plot of marital riffs and wondering if he loves his perfect children.

And once they leave camp, there’s no other central touchpoint. They stay friends, and soon after they graduate the gold boy brother disappears after being accused of raping another girl they all sort of know, and that gives his sister an excuse to keep the secret of his whereabouts for like thirty years, but really, the book should have been about that magical summer at camp, period, if they were going to lose all their personality as soon as they went home.
One late plot point I appreciated: the older Jules convinces her husband to take an offer to run the old summer camp, and – before you roll your eyes out of your head like I did when I started reading what I thought was going to be a super-Velveeta-cheesy ending – they don’t stay on forever as the new purveyors of utopia. But it wasn’t because they weren’t good at it; it was because it “just wasn’t the same,” said Jules. I also liked that her husband took her to task for expecting it to be the same and what a shitty reason that was for taking the job in the first place. If it had to go into their grownup lives, I guess that would’ve been a distant second-decent end. Ham-fisted, but better.

Although this review might be considered completely invalid because this was another advanced reading copy I read on my lunch breaks at the library and there’s a blurb that says “Please don’t use exact quotes from this copy because it might get edited again before being published.” Or something like that. Anyway, I’d give it a miss in April 2013. aHam

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Book: Saga Volume 1
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
Published: 2012 (Image Comics)

This sentence, written on a page dominated by a pair of ram-human hybrids who are fighting winged people for a planet on a different plant – these particular ram-humans have just busted through a wooden rocket ship to travel with their rogue pacifist ram-son who fell in love and married and just had a kid with a rogue not-quite-as-calm winged deserting soldier – and –
“To be continued!”


Okay. But you got all that about a galactic war, right? The war has been outsourced to different planets so now it sprawls across the galaxy and these humanoid robots with TV heads are the main forces and they’re chasing the rogue couple because they deserted a prison and they’re not supposed to have kids. They want the kid for SOMETHING THAT I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YET GAH.

I will keep harping on this NOT HAVING THE NEXT BIT OF THE STORY until I can check out the next bit from the Library because it’s the only thing I didn’t like about this story. The war storyline is handled well in how it shows how all-consuming and wearyingly normal this lifestyle has become; it also adds urgency and desperation to the couples’ escape. They don’t know if they’ll ever actually find a safe place.


Ahem. The art is awesome; strong lines and bright colors that don’t compromise subtlety of shading or expression. There’s some weird-ass stuff in here, like the TV-head robot monarchy, and the ghost of a girl who got killed by a landmine and is now pink and legless with entrails hanging down from her torso. She’s the planet native that helps the couple and their baby find the rocket ship; she’s a total teenager with a good heart and sarcasm. My favorite mix. And a spider-lady assassin who was chasing the couple was probably the creepiest image. Like a centaur only with spider and boobs. Yeah.

Really great start to a story, very seamless blend of personal and political world crises and how they depend on each other, and I want more, dammit! Sigh. I guess I’ll be patient. This is worth digging into the catalogue and waiting list.

Note: My boyfriend points out that this writer (although not the same artist) wrote Y: The Last Man, which is out in its full incarnation and is just as weirdly wonderful ride as Saga will hopefully be.

British stories aren't afraid to get weird

Book: Best English Short Stories II
Authors: various (edited by Giles Gordon and David Hughes)
Published: 1990 (Norton) (collection)
Pages: 332

At work, a person in the break room saw me reading this during lunch and asked, “Are you reading that because you have to or because you want to?”

Dear readers, I am happy to report that for about a year and a half now, I have not read a book that I didn’t want to read. Continuing that trend, these short stories don’t make me question my choices.
It’s a decent array of contemporary-ish short fiction from British people, although none of them slapped me in the face with their Britishness. Which I appreciated. A good story is a good story, especially the beginning one that was about a Jewish man who was in a concentration camp and since he was young and strong the guards made him work cutting the hair of the women and children who came through. It ends on a hopeful echo that’s a handy metaphor for him reclaiming that part of his life. (Spoiler alert: He gives his daughter a haircut that was the opposite of all the other haircuts he had ever given.)

The stories go from your standard lit-fic meditation on an alcoholically crumbling marriage to a ghost story about a dead World War I soldier trying to make friends with the girl who now lives in his house to how a man uses driving lessons to relieve himself of the guilty burden of keeping his dying male lover company in a hospice.

That one (“Baby Clutch”) was another favorite of mine. It was slantingly confessional – the protagonist never said anything direct about his feelings, but he over-described stuff like how he learned to shift in a way that showed how he was trying to distract himself and make himself better for his lover at the same time.  

Also, some English people aren’t afraid to get weird by writing about skeleton whores, Jewish doctors with shifting names, and how a love of geology can prove you innocent of murder. Yeah!
Had to? Hell no. Wanted to? Yes! Bookshelf!  

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Little Brain rides again

Book: Fury
Author: Salman Rushdie
Published: 2001 (Modern Library)

Did you guys know Salman Rushdie is funny? I sure as hell didn’t. But he is!

This is a lot like Humbolt’s Gift in that it’s the downward-y spiral of a rich guy with an ex-wife and a weird way of earning a living in an iconic American city. Malik Solanka, however, carries the extra weight of being a British ex-pat who gave up an academic life to make dolls, one of which is called 
Little Brain and becomes a cultural icon after starring in BBC history shows.

Also, murder. Murder was in Humbolt, too, but only on the fringe. Solanka here winds up into blinding rages that he can’t control or remember and when he hears about young women getting strangled around town, he’s really scared that it’s him. It’s not (oops, spoiler), but Rushdie does a great job of using third person limited perspective to hint at unreliable narration that slowly unravels tension until it’s gone and some frat boys did it. You’re as relieved as Solanka is when it’s proven that he didn’t do it.
The murder thing is a big surprise – but it makes surprising sense when you think about how Solanka’s let his life go out of control and when Rushdie incrementally reveals just how much has gone to shit for him.

Solanka goes on philosophical monologues about the state of America too but they’re hilarious because A. he doesn’t have the indignation that a native has that all this shit is actually affecting him, and B. he uses old arguments to back up pop culture rants instead of the other way around.

So anyway eventually through a nymphet wanna-be and a new doll he gets his creative groove back and starts another story phenomenon through a constantly evolving web-based sci fi story-building world, and he gets to reunite with his son. Earned happy endings? Sure!

Again, this is a Book I Picked Up In Place of the Famous One I Actually Wanted to Read, aka The Satanic Verses for Rushdie. I believe I will pick that up and see what all the fuss is about. Eventually. (You guys, I fell off the no-new-to-me-books wagon so hard during the Friends of the Library’s book sale. My car is now unofficially a bookmobile.)    

Friday, February 8, 2013

And we shall have peace

Book: Siddhartha
Author: Herman Hesse
Published: 1951 (New Direction)
Pages: 152

Q: How do you find happiness?
A: Live simply.

That’s it. Maybe you could listen to the river – that really helps. So does being a shallow materialistic rich guy for a couple decades so you can remember what that’s like and appreciate how much better the simple stuff makes you feel.

That worked for Siddhartha, son of an Eastern holy man who rejected all teachings because he found words meant nothing so therefore all teachings meant nothing and what he felt meant everything. He goes off to join a religious order, then falls into materialism when he goes off by himself, and finally finds peace helping an old man paddle a raft across a river because that puts him in touch with the earth. That’s where he finds true happiness.

It’s a fable, told with very pointed dialogue and formal language structure and time that melts away in a sentence. I knew this, and I put off reading this because of it, and that was a dumb reason. A less dumb reason was I didn’t want to find out that you have to be still and calm and give up yourself to find yourself. I don’t want to start agreeing with that and am being completely 100% serious when I say that my nervous tics and preoccupations make me feel human. I want my meaning of life to be as loud as possible.

But that turned out to be another dumb worry too. Siddhartha’s ultimate peace is based on, and I’m paraphrasing here, noticing how awesome everything is and being super-psyched about it and using it to enjoy life without unnecessary superficial crap that secretly or not-so drags us down.

And he’s totally human, guys. Like, when he meets his young son and takes him in after his mother dies, the son acts like a total brat and eventually runs off and Siddhartha goes after him but then the raft dude says, “That’s how you started to find your way, right? Leaving your dad’s?” It hurts like a bastard, but Siddhartha recognizes the truth of that and lets him go.

None of it’s easy but it’s all worth it in the end. I really like that message.

Note on copy of book: I’ve no idea where this one came from. It looks exactly like the type my high school AP English teacher had in a set on her bookcase as one of the extra books we could choose from to do some sort of project about, and a fellow APer said Siddhartha was really good, so it’s possible… but my boyfriend, double English and Philosophy graduate that he is (also Library Science, y’all! He had me at “So, I’m a librarian.”), also said that. Possibly I bought it cheap and used after talking about it with him. I DON’T KNOW, and that sort of bothers me. But not enough to keep it off my bookshelf. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The ABCs of LARP

Book: Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms
Author: Ethan Gilsdorf
Published: 2009 (Lyons Press)
Pages: 293

If you can tell me what LARP means and use it in a sentence that describes why the participants get angry when you call their events Renaissance Fairs, then you have graduated from this book before opening its pages. Don’t worry about reading it.

As for the rest of you – who the hell are you and how did you find this blog?!

I kid. But not by much. I’ve only gotten geekier since high school, so none of this surface-level dive into role-playing games, fantasy literature, Lord of the Rings tourism, and Dragon*Con was any sort of news whatsoever. If you’ve ever wondered about any of this stuff but neither you nor any of your friends are into it, eh, this would be a good very basic starting point so you can go into your local comic book shop and know how to tell them to teach you more.

I don’t really like the writing style. Gilsdorf circles around the same points (Fantasy lets people escape their boring/stressful/terrible real lives! Role-playing and tabletop games are actually good socializing! Geekery is something you grow out of except when you don’t!) over and over even when his chapter title indicated he had moved on to something else.

And oh my god he dropped the Styrofoam mace SO HARD when it game to the Geeks in Love chapter. Seriously, it was about half a page of “Here is this couple who both like nerdy things [she likes fantasy and he likes sci fi] and their shared house reflects that” before he goes back to wondering why people love disappearing into fantasy so much and never mentions the, you know, actual LOVE STORY of the two people who were geekily in love. That would’ve been SO COOL to hear about. Maybe I’m biased but geeky love stories are the BEST, y’all. They’re about smart people connecting and coupling over complex things, and –
But we don’t get any of that.

He does distinguish between fantasy and sci fi; although he doesn’t talk about the latter too much and the future will always have much more of my heart than the past, it was refreshing to acknowledge the real differences and not just do the thing that every retail bookstore does and smushing them together.

He fails at the personal connection thing, though. His D&D younger days keep coming up, in valid exploration of how he used that to feel powerful in the wake of his mother’s incurable brain aneurism, but then he can never decide if he should outgrow it or the Lord of the Rings obsession that he uses as an excuse to explore New Zealand. His girlfriend kind of wants him to grow up, but maybe that’s not all she wants, he doesn’t really know, so they stay together but not happily and it’s all Frodo’s fault? I guess? He’s not clear about that at all and it pops up randomly and awkwardly. Much like those adverbs.

It’s weirdly condescending for a self-proclaimed one of the tribe, and he always sounds so self-conscious and like he’s trying to find a genuine reason to laugh at all this and dismiss it as ridiculous. BUT THE GEEKERY IS TOO STRONG and it’s getting too mainstream to call any of this weird anymore.

Ahem. It mostly made me want to go to Dragon*Con so I could write better than he did about that experience. I COULD MEET DARTH VADER, Y’ALL.