Sunday, August 3, 2014

A pen name, banjo, and lady robot walk into this guy's spaceship

Nobody's fooling anybody here, Vonnegut. You totally wrote this, about a space traveler with an owl (!), a dog, and a female robot who's smarter than he is, who searches for the big meanings in life going from planet to planet, all of which have life forms that have caricatured relationships to sex and modesty and variations on the hedonism/puritanism/equality scale, only to make it to the high philosopher of the people who have been marking the galaxy for eons, escape his cannibalistic urges, and learn that all the cosmos and their joy and suffering are just a random joke. The extended references to other fake science fiction novels give you away, good sir.

This was fun, written with Vonnegut's sense of humor fully in tact, but without his weird cynical optimism about humanity underpinning everything, it fell a little flat.

I read it in two sittings and laughed but saw the end punchline from a couple chapters in, and the sometimes-random quick patches of "oh and this is why this worked" seemed rushed but still clever.

Good but not transcendent, and I turned it back in this morning because it's on someone else's library card and he's already had to renew it once for me.    

Groovy adventures of Diana Prince

Once I got over the outfits, I kept finding more details that firmly entrenched this comics collection in the 1970s. The concept of Diana Prince as Wonder Woman is filtered through these weird undulating layers of faint sexism that may or may not be a trick of the times.

Like, she's given up her powers in some recent past so now she's just an independent chick with her own business...which is a clothing boutique...who can chop your ass six ways to Sunday and not break a sweat doing it...because she studied under a male master...who fights for female freedom and empowerment...against another female who wants her beautiful face to replace her own damaged goods...who teams up with female rival Cat Woman to bring down a vague brothel-sort of organization...where they have to give hypnotizing jewels to her male master for safe keeping because they are just SO DANG SHINY...but it's mostly because he's blind and is the only one who can't actually look at the stupid things.

So, I guess net positive for the ladies who fight? They do save the world. ...and she does fall in love with a dude and that's part of her motivation. And he's a little TOO amazed that she's so good at this. But also supportive!

I have to read Wonder Woman comics as how good they are at feminism first because whether she likes it or not she's the first and most prominent spokessuperlady for it. This collection made a frank study of it, which I appreciated also because it brought some realness into two completely ridiculous, oh-yeah-this-is-a-reason-to-read-superhero-comics stories: they're FUN.

Going back to the library, and yes, fine, I am starting to just dip in whatever looks interesting and am slowly getting better rewarded for it.

Take it to the moon, take it to the stars

Book: The Time It Takes to Fall
Author: Margaret Lazarus Dean
Published: 2007 (Simon & Shuster)
Pages: 305

You guys, this was the best reading surprise I've had in a really long time. Walk with me through some Personal Backstory here. In May 2013 I took a road trip with my then-boyfriend and another friend to see our awesome Virginia People, and on the way back we stopped at this giant sort of gas station/Wal-Mart/Dollar Tree hybrid that wanted to be South of the Boarder only for the saddest excuse of highway capitalism ever. It was late, it was getting dark, we needed to pee, I saw their discounted books section, and I instantly made up a new tradition that would compel me to buy one. About twenty minutes into our stop, the boys find me with those round blank stares that mean HELP I HAVE SEEN THE SHOPPING ABYSS AND IT IS LOOKING BACK so we skeedaddled and boy am I glad we don't have a chain of JR's around here.

So I wasn't expecting this book to blow me away like it did. I put off reading it for, what, like a year and quarter before I was finally distant enough from the trip, the breakup, and my last trip to a mall (which, seriously, I can't even remember) to be as objective as I was going to get.

And it's SO GOOD, you guys. SO GOOD.

It's about a girl growing up in Florida during the early '80s NASA boom because her dad's a technician, and she keeps track of all the launches and wants to be an astronaut but she doesn't tell anybody because it's still geeky, and she's right there to experience the Challenger explosion and its ripple effects on the space program and everybody's jobs, and she sort of whiffs a crush that the son of her dad's boss has on her, and her mom leaves probably to go be with that boss but she's only got circumstantial evidence, and she skips a grade to get into high school early and she just does all this coming-of-age with language that blooms with her realizations and maybe the ending's a little too happy but it's also ambiguous enough to think that it's just a last doomed try at normalcy. I've gone back and forth between reading it and writing this.

I really enjoyed the story, because I wish NASA was an important thing again so hard, and I enjoyed the tone because it was pitch-perfect for a smart young teenager slowly finding out how much of grown ups' lies she's already uncovered and what other sort of surprises they have for her, and I enjoyed how naturally her awkwardness and confidence ebbed and flowed as she got better at some things and exposed new-found clumsiness in others.

So I'm glad this is a good book because I bought it on a good trip with good people and as a like symbol it works well for how we've all managed to stay good friends through my own personal Depressing Truck Stop of Life.

Um. Yeah. Just go read this. It is staying all over my bookshelf, and my library has a copy of it, so there is at least one place you can get this instead of the only other place on the side of the Interstate beside Denny's.

Books on a plane

Book: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Published: 2013 (HarperCollins)
Pages: 178

I turned off my "let's not buy stuff and make ourselves poor" switch when I went to visit my friend for the most American 4th of July ever in Austin, and boy was it ever worth it.

I started at the Columbia airport newstand when it had this book and Night Film (saving that for the very end of my "you're home now and not allowed to spend money until your gas tank coughs and your fridge is dying of starvation" mode) and the Thomas Wolfe in my carry-on was getting ponderous. (More on that soonish!)

And of course it was worth it. So worth it. Neil Gaiman has such a deft touch of the magical that if I don't watch out he will convert me to high fantasy without me even noticing. But the thing I like most about him is that he could totally do that but he doesn't want to, he just wants to show the alternate versions of reality where magic just makes real life more interesting, easier, and way more difficult all at the same time.

We meet this guy going back to his home farmtown for a funeral, and he's drawn to the next door lady neighbors who have a pond in back that their girl used to call an ocean. Flashback - done well as a fall into one long whole story - into when the boy was seven and the girl was eleven and one time he accompanied her on what turned out to be a supernatural errand to banish this oogy force from the land because it wanted to give people what they want but in terrible ways, and then there were also Things flying around taking bites out of the world to leave spots of nothing gaping voids.

On this errand, the boy lets go of the girl's hand, and that lets the oogy force get into him and then manifest as a housekeeper who steals the hearts of his family and breaks it apart and makes his dad almost kill him before the boy can team up with the ladies and banish it forever. The ocean's this spot of healing that they dunk him in, and the girl hurls herself in front of the boy to save him and then she's dipped into the ocean and goes into a deep coma. Nobody knows when she'll wake up, and of course it shakes him for life but as soon as his family moves away his memory gets dim and stores it in this lidded unconsciousness of childhood until he's reminded about it all at once when he comes home again.

It's a slender book packing a lot of big questions about memory, childhood, getting what you want, friendship, magic, and how it all knits together slantwise at a certain impressionable time of your life. I loved it, and I'm a book closer to a section my shelves being The Neil Gaiman One-Man Show Spectacular.

Other book finds: FINALLY replaced Consider the Lobster and FINALLY bought Infinite Jest. You people WILL know why I like David Foster Wallace so much even if you take nothing else away from this blog.

Chasing love, authors, and cross-species war across the galaxy

Books: Saga 2 and 3
Author: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
Published: 2013 and 2014 (Image)

Did I mention my friend took me to her local comic shop and that I spent like 20 of the most boring minutes of her life lecturing and agonizing over the manga section? She is such a good hostess.

Anyway, I got distracted by these trade being out and immediately changed course and then read both of them in giant gulps during our lazytimes.

The first trade ended on Marco's parents popping up for a surprise visit; the second takes off with the parenting theme and puts his wife from the warring fraction and their hybrid kid into full domestic freakout with them as they fly around in their tree spaceship and people try to find and kill them.

I like them as parents, okay? I know they're from warring races, but he's so adorably optimistic and she's so worried she swears all the time, and it seems like exactly the real sort of match that would make parents who complement each other realize the enormity of their situation and cling to each other for support even as they're getting on each other's nerves.

And then we get into the story of how they met, and it was over a BOOK and he was her prisoner of WAR and they fell in love over an author's thesis that they could, hidden in what I'm going to be honest and say sounds like the dullest example of future sci fi lit fic ever but what touches them is the sheer banality of this different-species romance - wait, we could be totally normal together? -  and that's what convinces them it'll work between them.

So in the present they go to find the author and hide away from the people who are trying to take their baby. These include an assassin who's getting getting too old for this, you know, who picks up a little slave girl from the sex planet of the last trade set and Marco's ex-girlfriend. Also the TV headed race of nobles who are
fighting as proxies and the spider-lady assassin who should've been dead from last time.

This set ended on less of a cliffhanger than the first one, so I'm less antsy to get to the rest. Those are still coming out in single issues, so the however long it'll take to get to trades will be worth the wait.

Sprinkles of time and moratality

...and then I went past the Sandman shelf and made myself buy only two because they were new and like $14.99 each.

The unease at how close we all are to the twightlight of the soul, etc., and how we willingly jump into that every night was priceless, though, of course. I ain't breaking new ground when I say this is an excellent series with a consistent dark tone that makes what could so easily turn into a teenage goth's view of the supernatural into something infinitely more nuanced, with immortals who are benevolent but within their own bounds, human in their restlessness and questions, and weary at having to try to answer what they haven't figured out themselves.

Death once again makes but a brief cameo but is still my favorite so far, especially in this context of trying to no-nonsense her brother the Sandman out of his funk.

I liked that these two volumes had more self-continuity than 3; there were still stand-alone stories but they all contributed to the central theme and Sandman's wanderings. Another favorite, which you might recognize as part of the theme Sandman Needs Other People Even If It's Just Once a Millineum Or So To Keep Him From Plunging Into the Sad Bastard Uncanny Valley, is when he grants a guy life until the guy says he wants no more and the two meet up in the same place (more or less) every hundred years. No matter what he's gone through, the guy never wants to give up his life, and this baffles the Sandman.

But there are some creepy people in this place, and the Sandman rushes in to save a young woman and her travel companion when they accidentally happen upon an entire hotel convention of serial killers, so you know dude's got a heart.

These are both of course totally going on my bookshelf, and what I might do in a few months is see where I can find the rest of the set used but still good but still cheap. all know where I'll probably end up, and it doesn't make me happy except when it works, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Before the Masks: Part 1

Book: Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre
Authors/Illustrators: Darwyn Cooke/Amanda Conner
Published: 2013 (DC)

Oh man do I love this faux art deco retro style of pictures. They are so rich of color and round of line, perfect for implying movement and the human form and, like, slipping into shadows and hiding from pools of streetlights and stuff. It was great looking at this thing.

 I wasn't quite as fond of the story until it stopped skimming the roster and settled into its own focused narrative of the Silhouette and the first Nite Owl's quest to continue his friend's justice against a mysterious evil lurking on little children. Hooded Justice was creepy as **** and may or may not have been tied into Silhouette's past at the concentration camps she and her sister escaped in WWII and that was a great hint that MAY OR MAY NOT have anything to do with who they eventually collar for this, I won't tell.

 That specific storyline, not necessarily the main one about Nite Owl trying to get his Minutemen memoir published without any personal compromise, was perfect for the noir-ish lines and beats of this. The Minutemen's history was kind of exactly like I would've thought, if I had given any thought to it, which I didn't because I always figured that wasn't the interesting bit, and turns out I was right. At least according to this, anyway. I'm counting this as cannon, since Watchmen managed to stay self-contained and therefore avoid that argument for so long until the movie (say what you will about the rest of it but that was one of my all-time favorite opening sequences), and even now it's just that, the original graphic novel, and these origin story ones. 

 Silk Spectre
Lori and I have a weird relationship because I feel like I most relate to her while also being fed up to past my eyeballs (but no further) with her mommy issues. And this volume just made it worse, only with a decent story,, someone tell me what I think!
Nah, just kidding. (See? She would totally joke like that.) Despite wanting its origin to be much more of a side note in a much bigger picture of reasons and consequences, I could see where Lori was coming from and how it propelled her into her stint with the Watchmen. Yeah, having a mom famous for being the easiest superhero to get to know, like, ever, would be embarassing and confusing enough to want to run away from but difficult enough to elude entirely, especially when it fights against her own natural talents and instincts. And sure, it's totally understandable that a big part of her would want to give in to that instinct to use it for good, to reshape her mom's legacy into something noble and purely heroic so she can be proud of where she comes from without feeling crippling shame at the same time.
And when Lori runs away, it's with a cute guy and a vanful of hippies who cheerfully practice the commune life before it got overrun with irony and cynicism that froze the moment in grotesque cliches of itself. TL;DR: I LIKED THE COLORS WHEN SHE DROPPED ACID.
Anyway, what turns out to dissolve that happy little nest is her real dad, and for those of you who haven't read Watchmen yet (WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE GO TO THE LIBRARY AND RECTIFY THIS) I won't say who that is but in this story it isn't important except that he knows how to creep through the shadows and intimidate the hell out of whoever is threatening her, which usually tends to cause her more distress than safety.
And it ties in neatly to her formal introduction to crime fighting, with the last two pages showing her walking into her first Watchmen meeting. But dudes, the last line is her thought bubble looking at Dr. Manhattan thinking about how she can get him into bed. "I bet my mom would HATE that..."
Also, there is a full-color panel of full-frontal male nudity in the middle of this thing, which - somehow male nudity is always surprising. I've seen more of Walter White's and Roger Sterling's bare asses than I can count comfortably but it strikes me anew every time.
Back to the library for this one.

The troubled history of higher education

Book: Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities
Author: Craig Steven Wilder
Published: 2013 (Bloombury)
Pages: 288

Unfortunately, the basic premise of this book isn't surprising to anybody who paid attention in history class, and I say unfortunately because it talks about how slavery was entrenched in the founding of this colony, this eventual country, and the institutes of higher learning of both.

 Okay. I knew this going in. It's right there in the subtitle. Lay some hard truth on me here.

Turns out that the colleges and universities were all founded by rich guys, and all the rich guys at the time were slaveholders, so that labor/economy intrinsically became a part of the system. This is driven home by an extensive list of founders, early presidents, magistrates, [insert your favorite title for collegiate Grand High Pooh Bah here], etc. and what humans they owned. It's an exhaustive, depressing, and repetitive list without much insight into the college system itself beyond the "What was WRONG with you people? WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS OKAY?" that can be applied to the whole slavery system.

 That's just the first half, though. The second half gets more interesting as we move further from the founding and the colleges start getting settled into the cultural prestige of the country. Efforts to educate slaves and "civilize" Native Americans are put together by the best intentions of clueless white people but almost always fail, basically. The book doesn't quite get to the Civil War, but it pours the foundations into the growing unease and awareness of inequality.

 I liked this book okay, but it was difficult to get through the apparently obvious first part to get to the real sociology underneath, and a lot of it felt like "well, this is just how they did things back then" without much digging into why that ugly part of humanity seemed so vital that it didn't merit any special mention except as an afterthought effect of being rich back in the day.

 It's already back at the library because someone else has it on hold so I had to actually get something back sans renewal this time. I did learn stuff but not as much as I wanted to.

Let the great plane fly

Book: Transatlantic
Author: Colum McCann
Published: 2013 (Thorndike)

I met Colum McCann in person when he did a reading at the college I live about two spits away from and I hadn't read any of his work then yet but now I have, FINALLY, and I put that all in caps because it turns out well.

 Let the Great World Spin was my first go-round, and after finishing this one a few days ago, I can start to see a common thread he weaves through the human condition that doesn't quite touch his characters' lives on the obvious level but is totally there in the undertow of history - we are all connected through our humanity, y'all, and while that's a hint too broad a theme to draw everything neat and tightly together in this book, it's still a great excuse to explore several connected areas of transatlantic history.

 There's a pair of aviators between the World Wars who want to fly nonstop from New York to Great Britain and the lady reporter and her photographer daughter covering them; there's the granddaughter of the photographer fighting to keep hold of the family ice farm in 2011; backtrack and you'll find Frederick Douglas uncomfortable with his place of refinement yet terrified of getting dragged back to slavery on his Dublin book tour in the late 19th century and the ladies' distant relative, a maid who walked miles of Irish coast to gain her freedom inspired by his teachings.

 The Douglas sections were my favorite. He was drawn as such a human character, fond of the finer things and elevated purposes of life but disgusted at the relief he felt when he was whisked away from Ireland's poverty. Plus he never really fit in, even among all the fervent abolitionist he stayed with, all because of something he couldn't help but fought so hard to break. And he had these dumbbells he would work out with to cure writer's block, and the descriptions of his white sleeves billowing as he wrote made him sound a very grand sight at work. There are all these little touches of unconscious dignity that make him very believable as both a powerhouse presence and a man realizing the extend of the work to come.

 All of the characters were drawn well, tending toward introspection focused outward so they weren't always clear on why they felt what they did but they saw the rest of the world clearly. I liked that McCann resisted going for any of the obvious historical connotations and just painted peripheral events to slide in a slantwise portrait of the times.

 Good stuff. I accidentally got the Large Print edition of this but ain't no thang. It's gotta go back to the library but I will miss it.

Conciousness like an onion (layers that sometimes make you cry)

Book: I Am a Strong Loop
Author: Douglas Hofstadter
Published: 2007 (Basic)
Pages: 363

At a certain point, I thought the nicest thing I'd have to say about this book is that I got a decent poem out of the title. I'm introduced to the abstract concepts of how our metaphysical thought construction looks at itself and tries to force patterns into the endless spiraling reflections it sees when it points at itself by metaphors that are more difficult to understand than what they're trying to illustrate. Cool, right?

 Well, hang on. We're going to pretend there's this world where everybody's born an identical twin and they think in pairs about everything because this makes it easier to grasp the concept of...what? I've forgotten already, because it's stupid and doesn't work as explanation because as well as being a double hurtle of abstraction to leap over now instead of just one, the author also does so much backtracking like "of course, in the real world, this wouldn't work at all, so imagine that it did!" SO WHY ARE YOU USING IT TO EXPLAIN THE REAL WORLD METAPHORS ARE NOT TO BE THROWN ABOUT WILLY-NILLY JUST BECAUSE THEY SOUND COOL SPIT IT OUT AND CLEARLY JESUS CHRIST. He has literally hundreds of examples of this back-tracking confusion-making pseudo-proof all over the friggin' place.

 And in the intro he also talks about how he believes that every living thing has a soul, just, like, stretched to fit depending on its place in the natural hierarchy, and I was all kinds of hating on that until the last part of the book when he ends up explaining it thoroughly. Oh.

 So let me get to that, because a little more than halfway through, he suddenly starts talking about his wife and how he felt like they shared souls in the sense of they knew each other really well so their personality patterns were sort of saved in each other's consciousness, albeit in loose grainy spotty copies of the real things. Yeah. I can dig that. We carry each other around as patterns weaved into our own consciousness because our interactions with each other change our own patterns.

 And then his wife DIES and he finds himself not as sad (although still devastated) as he expected because he's all, "But I still remember her and have my copy of her saved in my consciousness, and so do all the other people who know her, so the stuff that made her her is still floating around, just not in the flawless and contained detail as when her body was alive." 

 ...I had to get a tissue. That was some profound shit that went straight to where my heart wrings out through my eyes right there.

So and then that leads into him spending the last good chunk arguing against people who think that our self-awareness and sophistication of thought HAVE to, like, mean something deeper than holy shit, look at the by-products of such evolved levels of consciousness! Our mental capabilities come from how complex our mechanics have become, and ISN'T THAT SO COOL? Why do we need a higher meaning when neuroscience is waving its own peculiar magic at us and going, "Look, guys, take this. Just take it, I technically don't need it and you'll have so much fun with it you won't even believe until you try."

 YES. EXACTLY. And note that he doesn't use dumb metaphors here - this part is all laid out pretty straightforwardly, even if too much of it is first detailed in the most unrealistic dialogue (as in the ancient philosophers' kind) ever that needs a whole other chapter to explain what the hell they were arguing about - that's where the clarity came in and yes, I agree.

 Taking that logic, everything does have a level of what we think of as "soul," but since it comes as a result from cognitive ability, the simpler the cognitive ability the smaller the soul. Okay. I still don't like the designation of "small" as opposed to, I dunno, maybe "less aware" or something, but whatever. I get it.

 And, ultimately, for those two points of utter sense, I will keep this book on my bookshelf. I still don't have to like his methods of explanation, though.

Humanizing the animal instinct

Book: The Inner Circle
Author: T.C. Boyle
Published: 2004 (Penguin)
Pages: 418

T.C. Boyle's fictional narrative about what became the Kinsey Institute is like the best kind of sex: propulsive, impulsive but quickly building its own set of interior logic as it goes along, and coupled with a passion for what it stands for. 

 It does two things I usually don't like in fiction, which are A. use the "narrator doesn't know why he's writing this reflection on the coincidentally most interesting bits of his life but, well, here you go" framework and B. exploit the learned emotional flourishes of the narrator's maturity to color his memories of his younger years. That usually feels like cheating to me.

 But while A. is still not 100% necessary in my humble opinion, here it at least sets up a believable situation, that of the narrator avoiding going to his mentor's funeral and choosing to get drunk and remember on paper instead.  And B. works really well. I don't have any better analysis than this time that approach actually matches the emotional timbre and scope of the story.

 And what a story! It's about this college kid who takes Professor Kinsey's "marriage" (sex ed) class to impress a girl who needs a "fiancĂ©" to take it herself, and how he ends up being Kinsey's very first assistant in the undergoing the massive survey of human sexuality that would make him famous, and how he meets a girl and falls in love and tries to keep their conventional coururtship/marriage/parenthood together while working outrageously long hours with a man who thinks sex is a biological urge to be satisfied as regularly and indiscriminately as eating.

 It's great. There's so much conflict between the spouses, the colleagues, society of the time, Kinsey's work ethic and his health - oh man. Four years ago I checked out the movie Kinsey from the library and watched about 2/3 of it before it stopped (disc scratches, y'all - if you can watch a movie all the way through from your public library, go hug their Film and Sound staff for all their hard work to keep it that way) but that was plenty of time to cement Liam Nielsen as the looming force of nature that was Prok (as they combined "Professor Kinsey" here) in my head, complete with his almost-basso profundo voice, and the narrator here is that rare everyman who grows in such believable increments you feel like you're going with him every step of the way, so I enjoyed the hell out of this.

If I had All of the Monies, I would turn my sociology minor into a masters or PhD good for work at the Kinsey Institute to go along with my future MFA and MLIS, but as it is, I have to choose and make "none of the above, have you looked at the loan rates lately?" a prominent option AND IT'S NOT FAIR. But then I calm down because I can keep books like this on my shelf.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The wonderfully normal absuridities of Karen Russell

Book: Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Author: Karen Russell
Published: 2013 (Knopf)
Pages: 243

Where has Karen Russell been all my life? Oh yeah, on New York Times Bestseller lists and on the shortlist for the Pulitzer Prize and also busy putting that Guggenheim fellowship to good use. Ahem.

So, point being, I've had no excuse except my own inclination towards distraction to not fall face-face in love with her magical realism that tends to bite reality in the ass and let it sort things out itself. YES. IT IS NOW TIME.

Here there are indeed vampires in a lemon grove, and they got there after the unsettling discovery that they don't really need to drink blood but that they're always thirsty for something. There are also poor Japanese girls who get lured into becoming silk-spinning monsters and use their mutations to escape; kids who fight brothers and seagulls for a chance at young love; tips on how to survive Artic tailgating (my personal favorite, probably because it's the weirdest yet is written as the most matter-of-fact) against those douchebag Whale fans and sub-zero summers; massage therapists who can unwittingly ease their clients' worst nightmares by taking them on themselves; and a scarecrow who looks enough like a bullied former friend who disappeared to insight some major survivor guilt.

They're great. They're all great, and they all have that touch of absurdity that makes them those sorts of escapes from reality reading is best at, yet they're all hung on frames of humanity that make them infinitely more relatable than a lot of the sci fi I've gotten to (yet - yet, I say! I'm sure it's out there). Like, the silkworm ladies became monsters for the very human reason of not having any other resources, and the guys in the Artic are still the same tailing buddies you see crowded into parking lots every fall, trying to make the most convenience work the best for them and giving the best luck to their team, and the message therapist is just as weirded out as we are when her client's back tattoo starts moving and then suddenly she's the one flashing back with PTSD.

I love it, it kept surprising me, and now it has to go back to the library for the next lucky sod on the waiting list. Fuck yeah, short fiction.

The wishing well of old artistic ladies

Book: The Fountain of St. James Court, or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman
Author: Sena Jeter Naslund
Published: 2013 (Harper)
Pages: 431

What do an old lady who's just finished the first draft of her latest novel and the life of a famous lady painter in revolution Paris have in common?

Trick question, my friends, because this book thinks it answers it thoroughly when - yeah. No, it doesn't.

 Ostensibly, they're connected because the old lady's novel is about the lady painter, and she manages to contemplate about her once or twice during her random ramblings around the Kentucky apartment complex she now calls home. But really, the (excruciating) detail of life's aimless release right after a work of art has been completed makes far more overt and explicit allusions to Mrs. Dalloway and makes me leery about reading V. Wolf although based on glimpses of her prose that I've already managed to steal, she mines much deeper into the psyche of everyday and not just wispy contemplation of chairs, wine, Hallmark friendships, and past marriages. (I don't think. To the Lighthouse is on the pile, guys, so stay tuned.)

 The book alternates somewhat randomly between this and a based-on-true-life lady painter as she grows up and works hard at her art and gets into the highest social circles of French aristocracy only to watch them crumble around her. This bit started out much more interestingly, sketching (heh) pieces of her childhood in just enough detail to see her personality start to emerge and mold around her talent, and it's good up until her marriage to an art dealer who she doesn't really love but hey, it's the 18th century and he's got a bangin' collection and connections and space for her to paint. Sweet deal.

 She even enjoys the wedding night; he awakens her desires and they're both all worshipful of each other's forms and each weird cheese off each other's knives (NOT A GROSS METAPHOR, I promise) and it was kind of more like a romance novel than I can fully appreciate but whatever, good for them.

And then it just...stops. Like, we go back to the old lady and her nervousness about a new paramour possibly coming by, and when we get back to Painter Lady all of a sudden she's talking about her husband being a gambler and bum and there is NO mention of transition and there's NO going back to sexytimes, NO "I found out he's a worse person than I thought but I can't quit this man, y'all, I wish I could" and as far as I could tell, NO time in between.

 That marks the decline of anything interesting in this whole bundle. The old lady continues to wander around her court with the stupid fountain in it (serves NO purpose, by the way, except something to be mentioned) and the painter lady starts outlining how awesome her life gets. Yeah. What is it with French revolution people leaving out the most interesting parts in their lives? We get no more details, nothing more except skimmed over summaries of life, work, death, and upheaval escaped early.

 Ugh. I wanted to be able to say that if you put the painter lady parts together you'd get a good novel, but that's not even true, and there's never any thematic connection between the bits even though I know the author wanted that to happen SO HARD.

 Back to the library, crossed off the list. I've decided that reading lists make me happy because they order the overwhelming job of "what to read next??" and it's something I'll be able to complete but not for a really long time. So. Yes to reading list, no to this book.

In like lambs, out like lions

Book: The Poisonwood Bible
Author: Barbara Kingsolver
Published: 1998 (Harper)
Pages: 543

Take a raging evangelist, his fading wife, and their four distinctive girls from Georgia, airlift them into the middle of the Congo, and leave them at the mercy of the natives, fire ants, and wet/dry seasons as a revolution is brewing while they're just trying to survive. See if you're surprised too when only one of them dies. 

 But mine was a happy surprise, as I loved how all of these characters showed their pasts and their futures in pretty much everything they did or said, and gained the consequences. The oldest girl comes in bossy and oblivious and doesn't learn anything except how to hustle men to get back to civilization; the tomboy twin tries to use her toughness to keep herself endeared to her father and in his scorn turns outward to survive and ends up becoming part of what she learned to fight; the crippled twin, always a step behind, keeps her mind flourishing in secret until she can use it for escape and distant study of what they escaped; and the youngest girl's gritty curiosity makes her an all-too-easy target of the unsettlement and unease the rest of her family brings to the jungle by just existing.

 The story is told through their rotating points of view, and that gives multifaceted details to this strange journey their parents (well, really just parent) drag them on. It's got all the adolescent drama of the older girl tempered with the twin's duality of sense and intellectual probing and the littlest one's straightforward learning.

 The mother also has sections, but they're all from years later and basically just mourning what happened in (very poetic) daydreams. I kind of wanted a section from the dad preacher's point of view because he was clearly crazy and determined to make noticeable impact even when that obviously riled everyone up at exactly the wrong time, but I didn't feel like I missed anything without it and the girls had a better view of him in context anyway.

 So, definitely bookshelf. For sure. I got a copy of this in one of my original bookstore stashes but lent it to a friend and then last summer finally gave in and grabbed my own copy and I'm very glad I did. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Piecing together revenge and honor

Book: Dororo
Author/artist: Osamu Tezuka
Published: 2008 (Vertical) (this translation)

Pages: three volumes

Y'all, I realize I used a phrase from this series to title my post about Black Jack vol. 1, but it just fit so perfectly and both series deal with what makes people whole. Also bionic body parts - or are they only bionic if they've got some sort of mechanical self-powered thing going on? But this guy has sword arms and hollow, chemical-shooting legs, so I get the feeling he can label them whatever the hell he wants.

 But he ain't got time for that, son. He's busy wandering around and fighting off the forty-eight demons that represent the forty-eight body parts he lost when he was born and his dad sacrificed him to forty-eight demon statues to secure land for himself. 

 Yeah. And you bet your ass he stumbles across his family again, including his jealousy-crazed brother and his did-I-mention-the-demon-sacrificing-of-young-child father. Eventually Our Hero kills his brother in a reluctant dual - but that's all the way at the end of the story. Our Hero first has to battle all these different demons, most who are disguising themselves or hitching rides inside actual humans and terrorizing towns and villages, and pick up a determined little squirt named Dororo (loosely translated to "thief" in Japanese) who wants his sword and eventually just becomes a pesky but kind of useful tagalong.

 This kid's parents were bandits and marked a map to their treasure on his back, which leads to the awesome side story about other bandits kidnapping him and getting mixed up with a guy who has hungry sharks for pets guarding the bay they're trying to get to, and then it turns out the kid's dad didn't trust anybody as far as he could throw them so he didn't actually hide anything but a note on the bay.

 And every time Our Hero defeats a demon, one of his body parts grows back. And SPOILER ALERT that doesn't have much to do with the actual story, which was refreshing when you know that Dororo turns out to be a girl (who of course bears a striking resemblance to Astro Boy). 

 The way Our Hero moves, it's hard to tell, and then remember after he mentions it, that he goes into this blind and deaf as well as limbless. He moves preternaturally well due to his determined training and stuff, and it really doesn't seem to affect him at all, so that's a slight take out of the story when he reminds you about it, but everything's drawn so dynamically, I can't complain. I love Tezuka's instincts for when to make things sharply dramatic and then when to make them rounded with comedy. His young ladies all look like Disney does, and each of his samurai have a distinctive pattern on their robes, and finding his tiny self-portraits hiding in the corner of frames makes me giggle, and I liked this translation's footnotes on name puns. 

 I know for a fact there is accessible scholarship about how Tezuka uses the "star system" to cast the same characters in different "roles" in his different works, and I caught my own undereducated glimpses of that here, and it does add an extra dimension of appreciation, but when you get down to the truly important bits, this is an exciting story that explores what it means to be human and what it means to have honor in a literal and fanciful way. You should go check it out after I turn in these volumes to the library tomorrow. 

How the other half live without care

Book: Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight
Author: M.E. Thomas
Published: 2013 (Crown)
Pages: 302

I feel like I'm the opposite of a sociopath, with way more empathy than does me any good. The world friggin' hurts, man - if you're not bolted down tightly you're gonna shake, rattle, and roll before you turn thirty, and from this memoir of a diagnosed sociopath, it doesn't sound like not caring is much of an answer anyway.

 She tries to make it sound like one. She spends most of the book proving what she implicitly or explicitly does not care about, which is pretty much everything. Even her own gain doesn't come into it a whole lot; she's self-destructive and talks about bad times in her life in the same tone and affect she talks about her manipulated triumphs, which makes for a curiously flat reading experience. 

 She's religious but mostly for the rules and a sort of baseline morality since she doesn't have her own, but she relishes bending rules to just before they break in any aspect of society. I think she might still be a virgin like a desperate high schooler might still be a virgin - yes if you look at it one way, no if you look at it another, probably technically but still damned anyway from the church's point of view. 

 I don't know - I read the excerpt in Psychology Today in my counselor's waiting room, which is what made me want to read the whole book, but the expanded details didn't really seem to cover any more depth. And maybe that's the point, that there IS no more depth for sociopaths, but a broader point didn't emerge, either, so I ended up liking the article better because it had sidebars. I'm a sucker for a good sidebar. 

 This is going back to the library (where, I might add, there are also approximately a bajillion and seven back copies of Psychology Today). My counselor recommended a book called The Noonday Demon which is about writers and depression so that will probably be both more relevant and more interesting. I'll keep you posted.

Going down smoothly

Book: Butter
Author: Erin Jade Lange
Published: 2012 (Bloomsbury)

Pages: 293

This was a spontaneous but not random pick based on a suggestion by one of the cool people in our Teen Center as part of #WeNeedDiverseBooks. It's about a morbidly obese high schooler who gets so depressed about his size that he decides to eat himself to death on New Year's Eve and broadcast it live over the Internet, ending with a stick of butter like the one that gave him his hated nickname, finds out that it gives him more popularity than he ever imagined, and I loved it.

 Part of this might be the fact that I am so dead tired of approximately 75% of our new/popular YA books being about romantic dystopias. Granted, the only way I have an opinion about this is because I look at the list of new teen books when they're posted (Tuesdays are AWESOME for procrastinating because that list, the general new arrivals list, and the CD list come out ALL AT THE SAME TIME) and compulsively read the descriptions to see if they really do still sound so much alike (that is a big yes if they're set in any sort of future) and also making my way through the massive backlist of the podcast Read It and Weep; they have taken so many of these bullets and made fun of them for me that I feel well-informed to make snap judgments.

 And then it seems like another 15% of YA is gauzy romance. Which leaves the other 10%, your Givers, your John Greens, your ... yeah, I'm not a teen services librarian, so fill this in yourself.
Point being, this one is good and funny and different while staying painfully true to the high school experience. Butter deals with making himself into a loner by playing the saxophone, trying to keep up his friendship with a kid he spent summer fat camps with (although that proves harder when he realizes how serious his friend has gotten about slimming down for good), and keeping up an online relationship with a girl who's in his class in real life but doesn't know it's him she's falling for in the chatroom.

 When he decides to kill himself with food, he sets up a website that gets him noticed and popular, which makes him start to feel better until he realizes his new friends and popularity are just because of his plans, not his real self. So just when he was ready to chuck it, he actually does go through with it.

 Here's a good time to say that what started out as a terrible plan from a teenager's impulse that obviously wouldn't work - is it possible to eat yourself to death in one sitting? - slowly got more plausible as he got more information. A talk with his doctor brought up the possibility of choking if someone eats too fast; the first party he goes to with his new friends makes him think about alcohol poisoning; his nightly routine reminds him that if he doesn't carefully control his insulin it could make big trouble; and finally he sees someone eating a strawberry and goes, "Aha! I'm deathly allergic!" 

 THAT IS SO SMART. I harp on lack of logic all the damn time on here, and FINALLY SOMEONE ANSWERED ME PROPERLY.

It doesn't work, but it does do realistic damage to him and his recovery is of course his moment of clarity but doesn't make everything better at once. He just finally faces the hard work he'll have to do and finally thinks it'll be worth it to make the move that his parents have been pushing for the past year or so.

 He also remains a smartass who is good at describing how playing his saxophone makes him feel better throughout his whole ordeal. I liked him and wanted him to do whatever would take him out of his pain.
So this was a sharp, witty, compulsive, and touching read. If you know any teenagers who feel like weirdos, give it to 'em and point 'em to your local library. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Junk in the trunk redux

You guys, I think I'm at a turning point in my reading career, which basically means this blog has officially outlasted the relationship that inspired it by like a YEAR and since I'm using that anniversary as a convenient excuse to take stock and make a game plan for future life in general, I'm going to do the same with m'books. They are so very intertwined.

 I looked into my car backseat and trunk the other day with the vague notion of cleaning them out and got sort of depressed for two reasons:
1. I am one person with no upper-body strength and a raging caffeine addiction so I buy boxes of diet Coke cans like two or three at a time and only ever feel like bringing up one box at a time and leave the rest in my car, which in the wilds of a Southern summer sometimes means my laziness causes overly warm cans to expand and leak/explode.
So that happened, not horribly but noticeably, where I had also left a stack of bookstore finds to chill out of sight until I was done with the ones in my apartment, and some of them got stained and/or wrinkled.
2. Looking over my stashed stash (both backseat and trunk) after the fever of acquisition has long since passed, I can't remember why some of them looked so interesting in the first place. 

 This brings home in a smaller, much less self-destructive way how much stress I put on myself about stupid shit that doesn't actually matter. Not that reading doesn't matter - oh my stars and garters, I haven't gone off THAT deep end. Just that reading is life to me and as long as I'm able to do it as much as humanly possible, it doesn't matter how and is always more enjoyable as an organic process.

 It causes me to freak out and feel like a terrible person if I don't follow these arbitrary rules I set myself, and I don't manage to follow them anyway, and that's cost me so much in cool people and general peace of mind that I'm making myself explode that concept to remember that HEY, YOU ACTUALLY LIKE THIS THING WHEN IT COMES NATURALLY AND YOU DON'T MAKE IT INTO WORK.

 I have no idea where that impulse comes from, except maybe that my best form of fun (writing) is actually really hard work that I DO have to treat as such so I treat everything like that.

Anyway, what this means is that I am definitely going to clean out my car of books but not to lug them all upstairs as further chores to check off. No, they deserve way better than that; I'm going to sort them into "want to read" and "do not care" piles (stains or not - they are all still readable), and the "do not care" pile I will take somewhere and donate without a second thought.

 I will continue forward with my reading however the hell the whim comes to me, although I will always attempt mightily to finish bad things I stumble across because part of my job as a writer is not only figuring out why and how good writing is good but why and how bad writing is bad.

 Here I'm going to list the ones I want to keep in my queue and the ones I'm planning on donating so in case any of you see something that you want, let me know before like Saturday and I'll get it to you (free to a good home!).

From this...

 I'mma read:
1. 1Q84 (everybody at the library says it's awesome)
2. Death Note series (will have to go Amazoning to fill in complete series because NOBODY EVER HAS ALL OF IT AT ONCE)
3. Bangkok 8 (I liked Girl with a Dragon Tattoo okay and have heard this is better)
4. Stardust (I'm working on becoming a Neil Gaiman completest)
5. American Jesus (sociology, y'all!)
6. Beginnings and I, Robot (Asimov, sci- and non-fiction editions - I've actually read I, Robot and enjoyed it but lost it somewhere between college and graduation)
7. Bowling Alone (more sociology, this time about My Generation and our weird ability to not actually do anything in person anymore)
8. Two short non-fiction books about the crazy uppity daughters of famous dudes from the 17th century
9. Afterlife (collection of stories and poems about what happens after death, a personal thematic obsession of mine)
10. Love in the Time of Cholera (RIP, Gabriel Garcia Manquez - magical realism rocks)
11. The House of the Seven Gables (The Scarlett Letter and "Young Goodman Browne" are very convincing)

I'mma set free:
1. The Secret Lives of Doctors' Wives (I grabbed this as one of my bookstore finds but then read the first chapter and had NO FRIGGIN' CLUE what was going on - such confusing plotting ALREADY - and it wasn't written well enough to struggle through all that)
2. Comical Fantasy (anthology I meant to give to a friend and then decided to read myself first but - I'm sorry, guys, there is a deeply prejudiced, personal, and completely unfounded reason there is so little fantasy passing through this blog - HEY PARKERBOY, WANT THIS? Let me know and I'll send it to you).
3. Shogun (these two volumes have been the keystone to my parents' over-the-TV bookshelf ever since I can remember, and I ganked 'em when I went for Christmas, but I've also tried to read Trilogy by Leon Utris from that very same source and never get past the Irish funeral [which is such a great beginning to such a boring rest of it], so either Mom or Dad or the dog loves historical fiction that puts me to sleep, and I'll put it back and get to it eventually)
4. Confederacy of Silence (if this hadn't taken the brunt of the diet soda, I might've kept it, but I also picked up another book about the seedy side of Southern gentility that remains pristine and seems like more of a broad history than a true-crime report)
5. Various mystery volumes, most notably a P.D. James (I thought, hey, this is award-winning, genre-defining here, but frankly the interchangability of the various titles to choose from does not vault my interest over the fact that Agatha Christie got to me first)
6. GRE practice books (they are written in and if I decide to take the test again, I will use online stuff to practice since it's a lot closer to the way the actual test is)
7. Tales from Hell's Kitchen (I I care? Really and truly? Not entirely so much, no, although I will double check to make sure this isn't Satan's favorite recipes.)


So I'm at the point now where I've gotten them out of my car and sorted, and I feel a lot better. It's a lot more manageable, and while I appreciate a fine array for selection in my apartment, I also like when the piles get small enough and all in one place so I can feel free to ignore it completely for weeks on end if I feel like it.

I keep threatening to chuck the book lists for the same reason, and that will be my next step, I think. Life is too short to stress out about this, and there will ALWAYS be books I want to read badly enough to get to.

"Nobody is born whole"

Book: Black Jack, volume 1
Author/artist: Osamu Tezuka
Published: 2008 (Veritcal) (this edition)

And I'm off in the uncharted (for me) territory of serial manga without the reassuring map of all volumes at hand ready to read like the straight clear road that takes me home every night. 

 You guys, I love it.

Black Jack is a series of interlocking but not necessarily chronologically dependent stories about the best surgeon in the world who was stitched back together and saved from death by a mentor when he was young. Now he's uncertified, mysterious, and called in for all sorts of weird-ass surgery needs.

 I think my favorite in this volume was when this guy had a face tumor, which is a Japanese demon in the form of a gross face that grows usually on someone's like knee or chest or something - only this guy's had covered his actual face. It talks, and says they'll never be able to cut out the evil, but Black Jack cuts it off anyway and it turns out the guy is a serial killer whose urges subside when the face tumor is all up in his business. So when it's not there anymore, he kills again, and then the demon grows back and makes the guy throw himself off a cliff to stop the killings.

 You can find all sorts of unexpected but poetic justice like that in here, starting from the very first story where a rich brat is beat up in a car accident and they sentence a poor witness to death for "causing" the accident because they need new body parts to restore him to life, but it turns out the only thing Black Jack transfers is the brat's face to the poor honest witness's body.

 At some point you meet Black Jack's old paramour's "brother," whose "sister" was "disfigured beyond repair" in the "war," and those quotation marks are winking so hard at you that I should've already put in a big ol' SPOILER warning. And Black Jack goes back to his mentor and tries to save him when he hears he's ailing, and there's a computer who thinks it's a person so Black Jack comes in to fix it, and there are these delicious small teases of his past sprinkled among the audacity of saving human lives that I'm looking forward to piecing together in future volumes.

 The art is a shrewd mix of cartoon people and realistic surgery shots, rounded and friendly but still horrifying when necessary, and sometimes such a mixture that it takes an extra minute to figure out what's so unsettling about it. And Black Jack himself is, there's not another word for it, just plain cool.

 But yeah, I think this series pushes past my need for a whole story at once by being self-contained pieces that fit together well. Back to the library, and I will pick up volume 2 when I find it. 

Good intentions, stupid people, predicable results of blessed release

Book: Me Before You
Author: Jojo Moyes
Published: 2012 (Penguin)
Pages: 369

You know what doesn't work? Convincing paraplegic people that life is worth living by shoving six months' worth of planned activities down their throats when all they want is the comfort of dying. Nothing earns the careful structure of the word more than the shit this protagonist plans for her disabled charge - who, by the way, used to be fully functional and still remembers all that - and reading about it made me actively angry. Because weeks of outings like a day being pushed in a wheelchair by unskilled hands through layers of mud to watch a sport he specifically and explicitly said he'd never liked in the first place at the racehorse track is really going to convince a former lawyer/rock climber that he shouldn't euthanize himself. JESUS CHRIST IN A CHARIOT-DRIVEN SIDECAR, DOES NO ONE LISTEN TO THE GUY, HIS LUNGS AND SARCASM STILL WORK PERFECTLY.

 Up to a very small point, I can understand the protagonist's motivations. She's a girl who loses what tiny little life direction she had when the cafe she waits at closes, and she has to take whatever job wants her first, which is companion for said quadriplegic. She's generally cheerful and sort of dreamy and likes her small-town life, so it makes sense that she would be horrified when she found out what her charge planned on doing to himself and that she would make the plans she did to help him. 

 That makes sense. For a start. But once she gets going, of course he sees through it real fast, and here's the dumb thing - she keeps going and gets super frustrated and convinced that the reason it's not working is his attitude and that everything would be sunshine and roses if he just cheered up. She doesn't think, "Maybe I should adjust my plans to be more like what he can handle and, you know, enjoyed in the first place" or "You know, I should try seeing things from his view and then maybe I'd better be able to figure out what really did make life living for him and bring it back to him in some meaningful, totally-not-superficial way" or at the very least, "My way isn't working, I should try something else." NOPE. 

 I completely understand why he went ahead and did it anyway, especially considering his living pain and how comfortable that classy Swedish suicide house made him in the end. I'm going to get a little political here and say my version of the sanctity of life includes being able to leave with dignity when you're no longer having more fun than pain. 

 So I actually did like the story, because ultimately it showed that mercy. And I liked the protagonist's family, which was a messy group of mom and dad and sister and grandpa who were all living together on nonexistent money while still trying to forge their own paths. That was a good anchor conflict compared to the paraplegic guy's trying to get used to being the helpless center of his cold family when he was used to being so happily independent around its edges. 

 But oh my god, that girl was so annoying to read. I think I'm going to donate this, because since she was the first person narrator, I stayed mad through the entire book and got superficial-at-best glances into the more interesting bits of agony, and she didn't really change in the end, and if you want to read about being trapped in a body with a mind that still functions better than anybody ever imagines, read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Not this.

The poison of a mother's love

Book: White Oleander
Author: Janet Fitch
Published: 1999 (Little, Brown)
Pages: 469

Holy shit, you guys. This is some mother-daughter intensity right here.

It's about a lady poet who's a single mom raising her daughter in the American desert until she poisons her boyfriend (with ground-up oleander distilled oil, y'all - ON HIS DOORKNOB) in a jealous rage. Then it's about the daughter rebelling her way through a series of foster homes while her mom's poetry gains new notoriety as she serves her prison sentence. 

 Throughout what could be registered as Standard Deviations of Foster Care, Coming-of-Age Literary Version 2.0 (you got your hardscrabble Jesus-jumping crazy trailer trash, your unnecessarily vicious rich bitch, your foreign-born hustlers who need another worker, your damaged woman who is more like a friend than a guardian and ends up needing the kid more than the kid needs her), the girl grows up with her mother's poetic skepticism deeply entrenched into wherever her new lives take her. Her mother won't let her ignore her, and it's tearing her apart until she finally grabs some backbone and runs with it. 

 I really liked this, although I can't emphasize how intense it was. I read it over a couple days of staycation I had this month, and I basically had to make myself take breaks so I could remember that life is more than flower vendettas and the hum of my bedroom window's fan.
So, bookcase for sure. I admire the hell out of such a fierce outlook, and it's great to find that I'm not the only one who wants to find such intense meaning, and it feels more sincere and hard-won optimistic than a lot of literary fiction - it looks things more square in the eye and fights rather than dithers about shit it can't change. But it's got to be tempered with something lighter - not to be confused with something shallower - to stay fully appreciated.

Living social commentary

Book: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Published: 2001 (Holt)
Pages: 221

It's not possible to survive on minimum wage in America. It's not possible now, and it wasn't possible in the economic upswing of 1998 - 2000 when this book was being written. And it's not just about money; it's about life and its tendency to bitchslap you when you're down.
So finds out this intrepid journalist who makes a calculated decision to find low-skilled jobs in three parts of the country and try to survive completely on the wages of each. She works at a hotel restaurant as a waitress, a cleaning lady with an in-home service, a nursing home cafeteria attendant (briefly, on the weekends), and a Wal Mart associate. 

 Every job puts physical and mental strain on her that makes it more difficult to better her situation than she'd ever imagined it. All the jobs pay her just enough to buy cheap food that makes her feel even crappier and cheap housing that - oh my god, I never knew the trappings of by-the-week hotel rentings were so bad. They cater to low-wage people who can't get the rent for better apartments, and the pricing is just enough to let them live somewhere without giving them any wiggle room to save or use for emergencies. Yet the conditions pretty much guarantee that there will be emergencies, and usually sooner than later, and basically if you don't have relatives or a car to live in, you are up the creek without a paddle or lifeboat or canoe.

 The journalist admits that coming from a place of privilege that she can fall back into whenever her life is seriously threatened takes away most of the real panic she would feel if this was her real life, but she still has a hard time keeping herself afloat and does a good, heartbreaking job of sharing the stories of people who really do this for a living.

 I'm coming from the same place she is in reviewing this, so take my compassionate outrage with a healthy dollop of middle-class mobility guilt and know that this wasn't the most rigorously controlled experiment, but it was an eye-opening experience that has only gotten worse in the real world where McDonald's sample budget for its employees includes income from a second job.    

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Ladies be fightin'

Book: The New 52: Wonder Woman Volume 1: Blood
Author: Brian Azzarello
Artists: Cliff Chiang, Tony Atkins
Published: 2012 (DC) (this collection)

I got some great advice at Free Comic Book Day. (This aside is going into its own parenthesis so I can point out that A., technically it's Free Comic Book Day EVERY day at the library, and B., the library welcomes girls who wear cute dresses while debating the character arcs of Batman villains and etc., and I feel like I have to point this out because one of my friends said she got looked at funny for wearing her Derby dress to get her new issue of Hellboy at her local 'shop, whereas I wore one of my favorite dresses to the library and got nothing but good reading suggestions. JUST SAYIN', y'all.)

So the continuity and history and backstories of superhero comics are especially intimidating, what with their 60+ years of history and baggage and reboots and such. And when I brought this up as a major barrier of my own comics reading, one of our esteemed speakers said like it was the most obvious thing in the world, "Just start reading what looks interesting and make your own connections."

(Another aside: I mentioned I was a Doctor Who fan, and that made them both chuckle and say I got no room to talk. At first it sounds equivalent, right, but really, even though there's 50 years of TV shows and numerous storylines, Doctors and companions and villains, formats, spinoffs, and media-leaping - really, it all goes back to the one core concept of a madman in a blue box. Comics are not nearly as neat and tidy. SO THERE.)

We spent at least an hour in the stacks Mystery Science 3000-ing Main's collection, and I saw this Wonder Woman comic that I liked the look and sound of. Wonder Woman finds out her origins are different than she's been told in a way that would both make her more a part of her Amazonian tribe and start a war among the gods. It's called Blood and it's drawn in my favorite bold-lined bright-colored style, and who cares what everyone says about Wonder Woman and the New 52 reboot, this is gonna be AWESOME -

...and it's about womenz fighting over a man. That is the whole story, at least in this volume, and the implications of that are far-reaching enough to put me off the rest of the story (sorry, Paul Harvey).

 It turns out Wonder Woman's mom Queen of the Amazons didn't make her out of clay because she wanted a kid so bad, as in the legend that had always made WW feel like an outsider. Nope, philandering Zeus came to the Queen and the strong lady got weak in the knees for an even stronger man and they got all busy and made Wonder Woman.

So fast forward to now, and Hera, Zeus's wife, knows he's been around while they're married and she's hella jealous and the discovery of one more of his outside children doesn't make her mad at him, oh no, she goes on the warpath to find that skank who bore his illegitimate daughter and turns the skank to stone.

And then somehow Zeus has died and so there's a power vacuum that all the boys rush to fill. Nobody once thinks or says, "Hey, you know, Hera's been here like this whole time, maybe she knows something about ruling heaven. Can't we just like combine the thrones and make one giant one for her that'll be big enough for her ego?" Nobody once thinks or says, "You know, there's at least one legit daughter floating around here, and sure, she's prone to chaos, but you know, her half-sister, the Amazonian warrior who pledges to help keep justice and the peace and suchnot, she seems pretty solid. Why not throw her hat in the ring as a consideration, at least?" NOPE.

Of course, Wonder Woman would refuse, and that's why despite her story I still like her as a character here. She is a noble I can get behind - truly trying to do the right thing as defined by what would do the least harm to everybody involved. She's realistically conflicted when she learns where she actually came from; it means she is actually one of the Amazons and not the outsider that she's never wanted to be. On the other hand, her dad was a jerk sperm donor and her mom didn't turn out as the independent woman she wanted her to be. This makes Wonder Woman run away, then come back too late, and it also made me want to hug her as a sister in solidarity. Parents are weird, man, and how're you supposed to forge your own way while honoring where you came from, especially if that changes so hard?

So I liked her, and I really liked Hera's peacock motif - although guys, the dress she was wearing in the preliminary sketches extra bit at the back was GORGEOUS so WHY WAS SHE NAKED UNDER HER CLOAK IN THE ACTUAL STORY? I don't know. But I loved Hades's design, too: he was a rather small, mostly-human shaped guy with a too-wide grin and a wreath of lit candles on his head that dripped wax in a thick veil over his eyes. Creepy and insightful portrayal of a dude who, when you read it properly, isn't actually the prince of hell but the underground, which is rather more calm and existentially terrifying than the fire and brimstone of Christianity. 

But the rest of it I will abandon to go find less misogynist stories (before you laugh, I know librarians who specialize in this stuff, so it's possible I swear) to connect. Wonder Woman is awesome and we should keep her that way, y'all. I'm still sold on that bit.

World War, take II

Book: Tales of Grabowski: Transformations, Escape, and Other Stories
Author: John Auerbach
Published: 2003 (The Toby Press) (this collection)
Pages: 307

This is another set of War stories, these about World War II and the Jewish guy who disappears into his new identity as a German clerk to escape persecution. 

 It's an interesting exercise in dual identity and how a new identity can take on its life on its own and basically suffocate the old one until the grief sort of explodes in exactly the wrong place and time. The new identity is basically written as a whole separate person who for some reason keeps flashing back to this other dude's much grimmer life.

 And believe you me, this doesn't skimp on the grim. World War stories have all earned their grit and the right to hand you their realities on a chipped tin plate with no fork in the middle of a trench next to a corpse that doubles as the dining room table if you care to sit at it. But I don't blame you if you pass that up.

 I read these right after I finished Pat Barker's trilogy, and unlike that I didn't take breaks between the stories because they weren't full novels, not really, and they were a bit more sparse on the psychoanalysis so they read faster, but other than that they felt very similar, just moved up thirty years.

 That's what makes war interesting (and horrible) to study yet kind of boring to read about in fiction - that unrelenting grinding sense of dingy dull dread stays constant across all levels and eras of combat. When it's written well like this, that's the best I can say about it - it's written well, and I will keep this on my bookshelf because of that, but I think maybe something a lot lighter and more speculative should go between these. Probably not deadly serious lit fic, though, because if the protagonist ends up being any sort of whiny I will want to seize them by their entitled neck and shove them behind a tommy gun and see how well they'll turn out.

 Did not mean for this review to get, uh, violent. But no, this is good, and based a lot on the author's own experiences, so if you haven't read a lot of war fiction I recommend this because it's no-nonsense while still being completely descriptive and feels achingly real.

They walk among us and wonder why we feel pain

Book: The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry
Author: Jon Ronson
Published: 2011 (Riverhead)
Pages: 272

According to this book, "psychopath" and "sociopath" are the same thing and used interchangeably; according to my Psych 101 and sociology professors, they are not. I hope I am not being to presumptuous by believing them over this guy, because I do love the offbeat adventures he gets into in the name of journalism.

 This is the same guy who wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats, and I heard him interviewed on the podcast "How Was Your Week?" (which, honestly, I love but had to stop listening to after the hostess went through a major breakup at the same time as I did - so go listen to it, we're both mostly over it by now), and now I'm going to have to read his book Them! because it's about conspiracy theorists and if he adds any of the affable  semi-skepticism that is still willing to be taken in if the evidence is good enough that he adds to his other work, then I'm already sold.

 Anyhoo, this book didn't depend so much on his ability to take leaps of logic, but it did wear down his faith in the mental health industry and their classifications of what's normal and what's not. It starts with a coded book that one of his friends receives and can't, you know, decode, so he tells the author about it and the author starts to dig in and in the process finds fascinating insight into how we measure psychopaths.

 I phrase it like that because it's not so much about the actual psychopaths that he gets to interview (one's in jail!) and run across, but more about how to tell if someone qualifies or not. Stemming from the checklist that was standardized in the 1960s, his increasing wonderings on the subject only get more tangled up in the development of the diagnosis and its history, why psychopaths make such successful business people, and what does it actually feel like to not have any clue what other people are feeling. 

 It was great first-person narrative journalism, which sometimes to me feels truer than complete objectivism, especially when the facts are also there between the anecdotes.
You should read this, and I'm going to put it on my bookshelf so the goats can stare at it, and I'm going to find Them! (which is all They want from us, really) and report back.

Sharing the wheel of sentient cars

And this is where Joe Hill embraces his inheritance and doesn't worry about what we'll think of his writing as compared to his dad's.

But of course I'm going to write about that anyway, because it's all over this book and not in a bad way but in an interesting sort of evolution of style.

 First the general plot: there are certain people who find these sort of totem things that let them access different planes of senses and existence, and one dude uses his snazzy old car to steal children and take them to one of those planes in his own mind called Christmasland, theoretically so they'll be safe from whatever their parents are going to do to them in life. But whatever good intentions the dude started out with have twisted into a relentless search for kid essence to keep him young and he's this soul vampire who picks up companions to help him and there's a girl he wants because she can use her bike to find a bridge that takes her to whatever's missing. Long road-trip story short, evil dude grabs grownup Bike Girl's son and she rescues him from Christmasland with the help of a librarian from Iowa who can see things in her Scrabble tiles and the fat guy on a motorcycle who rescued her when Evil Dude came for her the first time.

 So! This is a pretty lean plot that doesn't skimp on the details but doesn't add anything superfluous, and I think this is where Joe Hill might be, technically speaking, a better writer than Stephen King. Joe gets us through characterization and plot without any repetition or hysterical side notes, which is impressive.

 ...but the hysterical tangents of the villains going secretly crazy are my favorite things about Stephen King books, and I enjoy his ride a little better for its ragged shoulders. So, Stephen King might be a little better at storytelling.

 But that doesn't mean Joe Hill isn't excellent there, too. It's all relative, man, and he's SO MUCH BETTER at how teenagers actually talk and interact with pop culture than his dad is (Cell and Under the Dome high fives - NEVER FORGET), which is a major part of this story because it follows Bike Girl as she grows up, forgets about her ability, and then finds it again in an epic quest that stays reluctant until she learns her son has been kidnapped. Then it is SO ON.

 And while the ladies here are painted with a somewhat rough brush and are used a lot by the men in their lives - so are the men, man. So are the men. I appreciate the use of an anti-heroine, especially since her corruption arc makes sense from her childhood experiences that nudge her just enough off the pathway to get her in the real trouble that was close the whole time and she manages to get herself out of it. Sort of. And the fat motorcycle guy who helps her and she ends up marrying - did we mention he's fat? Because he is, and it's mentioned more than is necessary, more than anyone else's normal bits of body (less than the new hook-teeth the children grow, though, which is understandable) - he's just trying to do the right thing with what little he's got with her and the world.

 This whole thing seemed a little muted until the end when the kid comes back BUT WAIT IS HE REALLY BACK-BACK? Because he's still acting weird, which I love because of course destroying Christmasland is not as easy as just blowing it up, come on. It lives in the mind, so of course you're going to have to destroy that token too.

 How? READ TO FIND OUT. No, seriously, take a gander at this and see how Joe Hill's learned how to stretch out since Heart-Shaped Box. It's good. Also going back to the library, so if you're a resident of ye olde Richland County, ye shall have access right snappish.

Bonus: a New York Times article about the Amazing Writing King Family. It's adorable and makes me wish I wasn't too old to be adopted.

We're on the edge of...something...computers? Yes! That's it!

Book: Bleeding Edge
Author: Thomas Pynchon
Published: 2013 (Penguin)
Pages: 477

Not quite entirely 100% sure of what I read here, but Pynchon does have a way of melding neo-noir smartassery with modern pop culture references that illuminates both without getting too stylized in either direction.

 Basic plot: a PI who's had to go private because of various shenanigans in the past that got her license pulled takes a job of investigating the shady dealings of some tech company that's either right on the brink of the next big thing or about to steal it.

 I'll be honest. I don't know which side won. I couldn't distinguish between the sides very well not because the digital morality stayed slippery and changed with every new piece of information learned - that was the good part. I enjoyed that. - but because most of her human sources were indistinguishable from each other since they were shady tech dudes who always knew more than they should and were always meeting her in cafes (how many meals can one eat out in one day? The answer in New York seems to be 5,984, plus brunch on the weekends). I lost track because she already seemed to know everyone and everything enough to not need a whole lot of distinguishing details, even on first time.

 But somehow that didn't make my reading experience any less enjoyable. I don't want to call this a purely stylistic enjoyment, because that makes the style seems more unusual and the story seem more shallow than either actually are, but something was  making me miss the full narrative implications without taking anything away.

 And there were a lot of details that I did pick up on and that were distinctly, clearly important and ran through the threads of the characters - like the P.I. is a mom who's dealing with letting her two boys become independent while also fighting her own heightened paranoia about how much extra danger her job puts them in. And her friend is the wife of one of the guys she's investigating, and the friend is an ex-hippie who's still trying to square her ideals with what her husband has turned into a business. And the P.I.'s ex husband is still hanging around for no real reason and she resents him for being able to take her boys to more fun than she can show them but also appreciates the extra help and doesn't really mind having her ex around but... it's complicated, you guys, okay? so she just shrugs and lets him eat their Ben & Jerry's until he says he has to be getting back.

 The main character is practical and easy-going until what she loves is threatened, and then she tries to keep the same calm and carry on so nobody freaks out while she's trying to fix things. It's a very human combination and a good way to ride through somebody's head for 400+ pages.

 This one's going back to the library, and I have to say that it hasn't done its job because I wanted to use it to decide whether to tackle Gravity's Rainbow and I still don't know. I SHALL JUST HAVE TO READ MORE TO DECIDE. OH DARN.

 What I baked and ate during this: I got a massive craving for something mint chocolate and so put together this pan of Cousin of Swamp Thing mint chocolate swirl cheesecake brownie and hacked massive hunks off of it for about a week or so. It was okay but a little too cream-cheesey for my taste. But I totally still ate all of it.