Thursday, August 29, 2013

Journey through the Caped Crusader's...something

Book: Batman R.I.P. (Deluxe Edition)

Grant Morrison and Tony S. Daniel

Published: 2009 (DC)

Pages: We’ve been through this before, guys. I don’t know.

…so what in the hell did I just read?

A.      A psychological tour of Batman’s deepest fears being used against him but then him also using that to turn into another Batman that he created specifically so he could punch his fears in the face and then use a bullet when they won’t stay down.

B.      Half flashback, half…present-back?

C.      Darth Vader-level daddy issues?

D.      A world without Batman! But don’t worry, it’s not real.

E.       The Joker playing these dudes, or the Black Glove playing the Joker?

F.       Batman going all Inception to get into the Joker’s head.

G.     And it works, right? I’m pretty sure it works in the end.

H.      Robin’s Greatest Hits.

I.        Dynamic artwork and creepy-ass Thin White Duke Joker.

J.        Obligatory feminist gripes: of COURSE the women are either helpless (Batman’s drugged-up mom) or faithless power-hungry backstabbers (his girlfriend).

I think all this adds up to something comprehensible, and I liked reading it – I’m just not sure if I caught all I should’ve from the storyline, because even though it’s a collected story arc, it feels like I jumped right into the middle of something and never really found my narrative footing.

Oh well. It was good Monday night reading. Back to the Graphic Novels shelf at the library.

The true new South

Book: Loookaway, Lookaway

Author: Wilton Barhnhardt

Published: 2013 (St. Martin’s Press)

Pages: 359

New book time! Woo! I checked this out because I read the synopsis on our library’s website and man, I can’t pass me up a passable satire of modern Southern life. I think that’s because I’ve always lived in the south, have rarely even traveled out of it, yet I don’t feel or sound like I’m a native around here. So if someone wants to tell me how my fellow below-the-Mason-Dixon-ers connect with their homeland, I am all for hearing how the hell they do it.

This isn’t so much a satire – which, okay, thank goodness, because I have a terribly tin ear when it comes to rooting out that stuff – as the slightly ridiculous way of life being revealed through different family members of a North Carolina legacy way past the time when anyone except the mother pretends the old ways are better. And even she’s just finishing-school old-school, with a steel spine to keep the good china as long as possible before they have to sell it to make the mortgage on their inherited mansion.

So there are various family adventures that start with the most boring one, with the spineless of the children, the youngest daughter, going away to college and making a really weak, clich├ęd attempt to become a party animal. And then I feel horrible for describing all this like I am because she gets assaulted, but…there aren’t any personal details that makes it feel real, so even that scene was very by-the-numbers.

Things get better, though, and if the author would’ve started with the mom of steel and used her actions to hint about what happened, that would’ve been so much more effective, because that’s how all the other scandalous family secrets (don’t worry, I won’t tell you what they are, but also don’t worry because they’re fairly standard but still impactful) come to light.

I will say this: load Civil War muskets figure prominently into two separate climatic scenes. It’s a little redundant. Possibly trying to show how history repeats itself and nobody really learns, but I think that message could’ve been a lot subtler or at least more imaginative.

However! I enjoyed this overall. No punches pulled but nothing exaggerated into cartoons of Rhett and Scarlett. Families are weird, and in the South if we don’t like you we will polite you to death (I have learned that art).

Back to the library ASAP so the next person in the holds queue can get it.

Outclassing Mrs. Robinson

Book: A Boy’s Pretensions

Author: Anthony Giardina

Published: 1988 (Simon and Scheuster)

Pages: 335

Let’s get one thing out of the way; this book is not The Graduate, and I am very glad it’s not. I think it might want to be, at least at some level, but it’s got so much more going for it – the acute existential agony of trying to talk to your parents about leaving home when you know it’s all a selfish act that they’ll say they’re happy about because it’s what’s best for you, the restless aimlessness of love that you can’t untangle from lust, the heavy sense of dread of locking yourself into a moral decision that you know will make you miserable – while still resting on the general framework of young man is conflicted but he doesn’t know why and tries to find solice in older woman who only makes him more agitated.

This kid has to come home from college when his dad has a heart attack and can’t run the family laundrymat anymore. He’s an only child, an only son, but he’s gotten his first taste of freedom at school. And oh yeah he has the hots for his poetry teacher, who is married but agrees to advise his private project on Anne Bradstreet.

So, he sort of flip-flops between worlds, not doing well in either, until he finally gets to bed with the lady but then his dad calls him home for real this time, so after a lot of soul-searching and declarations (I love how the teacher calls him out on most of his romantic bullshit, especially when he’s all “I want to give you a baby!” and she’s all, “No twenty-year-old really wants a baby”) he goes back home for good.

Kind of a bum ending, but it felt true to life, like life wants him to see exactly how much his philosophizing means in the real world, and it’s full of more human emotion between the stilted lines of dialogue (oh, the visits from the relatives who are close enough to judge but not close enough to really know him! How they say so much when they’re talking about brown pajamas and meaning why doesn’t he help his poor old dad already!) than any of the shrill shrieking I read in The Graduate.

I’m sorry but I hated that book. It took away all my sympathy for Benjamin in the first few pages, and it never gave that back. I liked this dude, and I understood him, even as he made sort of stupid, grandiose mistakes that ultimately didn’t mean anything.

This one goes back to the library too, but not onto my Amazon list. It’s a good read and there’s emotional truth in there, but not enough for me to want to read it again.  

Pulling the curtain back

Book: Drama

Author: Raina Telgemeier

Published: 2012 (Graphix)

Pages: 233

The last thing teen fiction needs is condescension, so I will swear on my two library cards that when I say this graphic novel is adorable, I don’t mean it that way. I mean it in the “these bright colors and fun lines warm my heart to the approximate setting of ‘fuzzy’” way.

This is about a young high school kid who loves being on the tech crew in drama club, and she’s so comfortable and happy in her setting that it’s a joy to watch (literally, on one level) her navigate her crush and invent ways for a fake cannon to really go boom for their latest production. She’s so comfortable in her own skin that all the issues are refreshingly about, like, actual personalities and how they get along, with a gentle, non-explicit but obvious dose of sexual identity thrown in.

I shouldn’t say “thrown in;” the sexual identity thing ends up being a bit of a driving force, but as a completely normal obstacle that isn’t weird or icky, just a little unfortunate when it doesn’t match with her own romantic expectations of her crush.

And it also saves the play in – here is this word again but you put rounded edges and magenta on enough bits of a drawing and I will keep using it – adorable way that I won’t tell you about because you really should read it. So: read it!

This one goes back to the library. I’m going to start making a list of books I check out from the library and like enough to keep so I can go Amazon crazy one of these days.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"Handbags," not "purses"

Book: Retail Hell: How I Sold My Soul to the Store: Confessions of a Sales Associate

Author: Freeman Hall

Published: 2009 (F+W)

Pages: 258

I have been infinitely fortunate enough to have been at a true, traditional retail job (what up, Stein Mart!) for only about six weeks at the tail end of the summer after I graduated college while I was looking for full-time stuff that might possibly use my rapidly-not-as-new BA in journalism. (Dare to dream.)

Even that was long enough for me to be able to relate to about 90% of this kid’s experiences. All of you who have been dragged through it for much longer – you are superheroes with sore feet, and don’t ever let anybody tell you different.

Freedom got into retail because he needed money and liked clothes. This was supposed to be a stop-gap as he got his writing career on the ground, but as he moved onward and sort-of upward to a fancier store’s purse counter, he slowly started realizing the true extend of exhaustion that a full-time job in sales entails.

He is a sassy gay man who frequently refers to himself as that so I’m okay with calling him that here, and he blasts you with the real thoughts screaming behind his fake smile and charm. He’s funny and manages to mostly avoid repetition because he encounters so many different things and summarizes his few regular headaches in descriptive groups.

It’s the usual parade of people you see shopping all the time but probably don’t know that much about because you have the freedom of running in the opposite direction when you see how difficult they’re going to get: competitive compulsive shoppers, scammers trying to return goods that are clearly janky and for skeeve money, absurdly picky rich people with more money than they can do anything with, mentally unbalanceds who wander in because they have nothing better to do.

Also throw in control freak bosses, pushing sales-stealing coworkers, an eight-flight stairwalk to get into and out of the employee entrance every day, and more artificial team pep shoved down his throat than a high school football rally, and you have the perfect mixture of a hellish job.

One thing that made me pause: he only gets paid on commission, unless he sells under a certain amount, in which case he goes onto an hourly wage, but he can only do that like twice before they can terminate him? Is that legal? It doesn’t sound legal, although he works for a very fancy store and the handbags he sells are like buying used cars in varying degrees of repair.

Bookshelf, because the only way to get through a bad day at a worse job is with sarcasm. (It truly is the most magical emotion.)

Finally reading about real kids in grown-up situations

Book: Zipped

Authors: Laura and Tom McNeal

Published: 2004 (Random House)

Page: 283

This is another book I’ve been staring at wondering what it’d be like for a long time, since I was in high school and nosing around the Nancy Carson Library in NA. And I finally got it and read it, and it’s not as epic as it built up in my mind, but it IS good.

It’s about a kid who discovers his stepmom is having an affair, and that discovery sparks off all sorts of uncomfortable hormonal and loyalty feelings in him as he tries to decide what to do about it while he’s also dealing with the girl he has a crush on and the college girl who makes very flirty friends with him and his weekend job with an asshole boss who is causing criminal mischief on the downlow.

Mick’s pretty average, maybe a touch more sensitive and intuitive than the usual 15-going-on-16-year-old, and I wish we could’ve read about his feelings and events in first person because I feel like that would’ve humanized him even more to get to the maximum emotional payoff. But then we wouldn’t’ve gotten to hear about all the other (teenage) characters’ secrets that tied together by the end. Sort of.

The only plot line that is really concluded is the creepy weekend boss’s kleptomania habit in the old folks’ community where he oversees the landscaping. That has a definite reveal, escalation, and resolution (guess who got arrested!).

The crush object? Develops her own crush on a fellow Mormon when she sees Mick and the college girl together; college girl eventually reveals she’s a lesbian and releases Mick to go get his crush object; Mormon dude goes back to whence he came and got back with the chick he left behind; Mick and crush object find each other again.

The most fractured storyline was the stepmom’s infidelity, which Mick does confront her about, and she does admit it, but nothing else ever happens about it, I guess because the rest of his life kept happening, but he was pretty obsessed with it and it just peters out.

I appreciate the realism and lack of melodrama; this book is an excellent example of how the real world and grown-up world can both be truly confusing, murky places to navigate the first time you really see how fallible your favorite people are and what exactly your deepest feelings might mean.

But I didn’t quite connect with everybody like I wanted to. Mick is too average to take this in weird directions. However, the seamlessness of a tag-teamed writing and the humanness of the characters and situations made this a good read that didn’t bother to condescend to its prescribed audience (YAs). (I wish that was a given, but not so much.)


Why I might yet become a vegetarian

Book: Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

Author: Eric Schlosser

Published: 2002 (first edition; this one’s 2005) (Harper)

Pages: 288

Fast food is bad. Duh. Everybody knew this even before this book came out – but I’m not sure if everybody knew exactly HOW bad it is.


Let’s run down the list: massive corporate sway over agriculture practices, disturbing amounts of non-food being added legally, terrible wages and back-breaking labor that attracts the highest desperation and turnover rate of like all employment, deliberately targeting kids, contributing to the obesity epidemic here and bringing America’s cultural problems overseas…etc.

The creepiest parts to me were the bits about the conditions of the slaughterhouses and how they keep getting worse to get more food processed faster. It’s not as detailed but somehow worse than the stuff in The Omnivore’s Dilemma because there are no good solutions offered here beyond massive reform and expansion of food inspection agencies. (Which, come on guys, bring it on.) I don’t especially feel like eating meat anytime soon.

Also creepy yet something I’m glad was added: the 2005 edition adds an epilogue about mad cow disease, since it became big news between 2002 and 2005. Basically it was denied by a lot of important people until it couldn’t be hidden anymore. Gah! Really?

With nonfiction, I know it’s good when I focus these reviews on the subject rather than how the writing was, because that means the writing was so excellent it was invisible and let the facts/story do all the talking. Bookshelf!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

"My best friend is someone who will lend me a book I have not read" (about dinosaurs)

Book: The Lost World
Author: Michael Crichton
Published: 1995 (Knopf)
Pages: 393

Oh, man, you gotta love this book jacket copy:

Fuck yes something has survived, and that something is dinosaurs, and someone’s experimenting on them and making them go all rampage-y on a secret island that some kids and a few interchangeable biology doctors have to go find.

If you are looking for well-rounded characters that are, like, real people – look elsewhere, y’all. I couldn’t keep the docs straight, since only the lady one had a distinguishing characteristic (she was a lady). But that was surprisingly okay, because between them they all debated about extinction theories and genetics and animal culture and it was really interesting.

The plot read like the wind, too, without spinning its wheels on manufacturing anguish. Even the romance between the lady doctor and one of the other doctors was presented as long past its burning point and used as a surprisingly concise, human shorthand of why she still felt so loyal to him and his causes.

I do generally like my novels with more meat on their bones (ha!), and I’m still not convinced Crichton is a good writer, really, but he’s got good ideas, and it’s fun to read him explain them in prose.

This goes back to my friend’s bookshelf (finally – how long have I had it? No, don’t tell me).  

This is your personality on antidepressants

Book: Listening to Prozac: A Psychiatrist Explores Antidepressant Drugs and the Remaking of the Self
Author: Peter D. Kramer
Published: 1993 (Penguin)
Pages: 313

The back of this book says, “Prozac is telling us new things about the chemistry of human character.” I don’t know how accurate that statement is eleven years later, but I did enjoy exploring its weird-because-they-make-things-totally-normal side effects with Dr. Kramer.

He’s a good guide through antidepressants in general and how this household name doesn’t just lift people out of their sadness but also puts some assertion and pep into their personalities. And all that medical explanation segues very nicely into societal arguments about what this means and how this could screw with our bell curve of “normal,” psychology spread. Like, will this jack up our baseline for what we consider mentally healthy?

Dr. Kramer doesn’t pretend to have a definitive answer, or even a very strong opinion, about this, but he lays out the facts and presents his own practice anecdotes for both sides like a champ, and it’s a joy to read something this informative without feeling like I’m whacking through bushes of technical terms and concepts (although they are there, he explains them fairly easily, if over a few more pages than kept my attention sometimes) or domineering authority.

I’m keeping it! It shall go on my (ruffle of drums and flutter of trumpets, please) new booktruck once they get that bad mamajama shipped to my apartment building. I’ve been waiting for an excuse to buy one (or three) as funky new bookshelves, and I guess I should thank the bugs that buried into a crack in my old non-fiction bookshelf, bringing out superhuman feats of strength of ugh factor in me as I hauled it down to our outdoors dumpster within like seconds (down three flights of sketchy-ass stairs, I might add).

Anyway, so now I’m going to pile this one on the couch with the rest of my nonfiction and then once I get them situated in their new awesome home (the color is “robin”!), I will take a photo and brag about it on Facebook.  

Double dose of comfy snark

Books: Bitter is the New Black: Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smart-Ass, or Why You Should Never Carry a Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office
Bright Lights, Big Ass: A Self-Indulgent, Surly Ex-Sorority Girl’s Guide to Why It Often Sucks in the City, or Who Are These Idiots and Why Do They All Live Next Door to Me?
Author: Jen Lancaster
Published: 2006 (New American Library), 2007 (New American Library)
Pages: 398, 380

Comfort reading again, my friends! You know I’ve read Lancaster’s take on dieting, right, and maybe the other book of hers that my library has but I can’t remember, which doesn’t really tell you about her quality of writing because it’s truly very fun, so much so that I picked up this early duet of hers on volunteer credit for some rough week or another that I had to think too much at my job and just wanted my lunch breaks/apartment hermit time to be spent in the company of a lady who is much more amusing than I had the energy to be.

I wanted to get to her origins, superficially to see what her writing was like before she had any chance of slipping in annoyingly annoyed reference to her own writing (look, we all think and procrastinate in the exact same way, but SOME OF US DON’T HAVE A BOOK DEAL TO APPLY TO IT) and a little more profoundly what she got famous for in the first place.

It worked on both accounts, at least in Bitter is the New Black. She used to be an excellent, hard-working hard-spending hard-partying salesperson until she got fired for no good reason. She took it exactly like a type-A perfectionist with a brand-name habit seems like she would – badly – and she mines almost four hundred pages of wicked (read = extremely bitchy if you are on the other end of it, pretty close to hilarious if you could just sit back and watch, or read) humor out of how her lifestyle crashes straight into her sudden lack of income.

Yes, she is mostly self-aware of how entitled she sounds through it all – but only mostly. Even as I know she’s satirizing herself, it really is hard to feel sorry for someone who has nothing after being laid off from such a lucrative job solely because of luxuries that were all completely unnecessary and 100% her choice. 

Bright Lights, Big Ass mostly avoids that, being a collection of essays she wrote after finally learning how to pare down her lifestyle and getting all that in check so she has more time to discover what unique indignities city life offers even the most regular people (which she is proud to say she still is not), like superconfusing public transportation (where does the Purple Line even go?! This woman was trying to get to a library!) and levels of snobbery in dog parks.

However – BLBA has that oh-ugh-I-have-to-write-because-I-told-someone-I-would-for-money tinge to a couple essays, and as a writer who has a short story and three poems getting published between now and January and won’t see a free lunch out of any of them and is still gobsmacked with joy at her babies growing up and saving China – well, it’s just annoying. Plus the essays lack a central goal for her to work towards, which isn’t a bad thing but is more aimless than when she’s stubbornly staring down a challenge, powering her way through it, or finding inventive, sometimes hilarious and always ultimately expensive ways of getting out of it.

Bookshelf, I think. I will probably end up rereading them during future times of stress, if only to learn how to complain like a champ.  

A little beyond "Heart and Soul"

Book: Body and Soul
Author: Frank Conroy
Published: 1993 (Dell)
Pages: 447

So this poor kid finds out he has a knack and a patience (and you totally have to have both) for the piano when he’s young and living with his mom in this run-down old NYC tenant while she’s driving cabs when she can, which isn’t nearly enough, and one day the kid goes into a music store and plays around on one of their pianos and the owner hears him and thus starts a lifelong journey of increasing musical tutelage, patronage, and working privilege.

Great, right, except there’s no real arc to it. All of this slides up smoothly, like a really good glissando, with barely a nod at any obstacles in his way. He doesn’t really have to fight anything or anybody to get where he wants to go; he’s good at playing the piano and that helps him meet the right people and that gets him where he wants to be. The end.

As a kid, he’s a mixture of awe, street-smarts, and natural tenderness that I was rooting for him to succeed, but when he did so easily and so early, he flattened out into a generic dude with a sentimental streak that he never really grew into. I’m sure his symphonies were great and all, but I can’t imagine where he pulled the conflict he needed to make them truly interesting.

I did like the mother – she’s a “solid” (read = large) woman who doesn’t know who fathered her kid during WWII but knows that won’t make a lick of difference now so she’s getting by as best as she can; she likes Pabst by the quart and doesn’t show a lot of affection but fully supports her son anyway without the frills of maternal sentimentality. She also gets called before the Senate to testify because she’s an unapologetic Commie who doesn’t tell on her associates, and all she gets for that loyalty is her hack license pulled.

I also loved the music theory bits. Conroy pulls no punches. You will learn about the physics of 12-tones, dammit, and if you have no idea what that is, then too bad. You might get lost when the piano shit gets serious. Listen, I had a combined total of like 12 years’ worth of music theory and it took this novel plus a further pub dinner explanation for me to understand the gist (when some notes are played at the same time, the frequency of their sound waves match up in sometimes weird ways that intensify or diminish each other! ISN’T THAT COOL?).

I picked up this book because of David Foster Wallace, whom I’ve given up resisted pretending to not love. (I might’ve gone as him to a Dead Celebrities karaoke night and performed that B*Witched song [I can’t spell in French] with a friend who dressed like Tesla. Together we were The Ambiguously Famous Duo and replicated the Irish jig bit of that music video on stage. In front of people. That we know. And like. Life has gotten weird, y’all.) In “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” his essay about going on a cruise, he says that Frank Conroy’s Stop Time made him want to become a writer. (Of course, this was brought up because Conroy had written the souvenir pamphlet for the cruise ship…)

Maybe I should try that out, and maybe that’s just as awesome as it still seems like it would be to get DFW to write, but this one doesn’t really impress. Donate.

…or should I ignore my superstition that if I take my books to sell at Second and Charles, the Book Dispensary will spontaneously combust of my guilt the next time I skulk in for my volunteer hours?  I might become a bookstore credit junkie. Who works in a library. I will drown in books one day, and it will be such a beautiful well-read death.