Monday, January 20, 2014

Books on books on conspiracy theories on books on identities on books

Book: S

Authors: J. J. Abrams (creator) and Doug Dorst (writer)

Published: 2013 (Mulholland Books)

Pages: 456 

Through my journey of mediocre impulse pickups and compulsive re-readings, sometimes I forget why I like reading in the first place. Sometimes it becomes a hollow excuse for entertainment or a way to kill time because I’m too boring to think of anything else to do. But then I stumble across a difficult, engrossing narrative with a payoff that reminds me, hey, we’re mapping the entire human experience here. This is important.

S totally does that. It’s a metanarrative where you have a book written by a mysterious, reclusive, yet semi-famous in his time author, but the real story is in the margins where two lost college kids start scribbling notes to each other, first about their mutual love and analysis of the story, and gradually escalating to a real-life investigation into the intrigue of a writer-spy ring, current literary politics, and their own relationship.

It’s great – the story in the book itself is a surreal exploration of identity, loyalty, and heroism told in a magical realism that involves a recurring pirate boat and a lady the main character keeps seeing but can’t catch until the end. The story in the margins is perfect at building up hints and forward and backtracks and slowly revealing connections out of order until you get – well, I didn’t feel like I got 100% of that, and part of it was I’m paranoid there were some bits of stuff missing.

The book has various pieces of evidence tucked into the pages, like postcards and letters and “old” photos and the front page of a college newspaper, etc. It frankly makes this a bitch to read in a lot of the public places I like reading – tried to read it while jammed up against a table of lawyer bros when I treated myself to lunch the other week and ended up closing it and “concentrating on my pizza” (= listening to their weekend exploits while staring at the fried eggplant I was eating) instead. And I’m also paranoid that I don’t have all the pieces to give back to the library when I turn this in tomorrow.

But it was really worth it, and I loved how it made me concentrate on its subjects, and I would so recommend putting money into this if you have $35.00 for a new book. If you don’t, your public library totally has this on loan. You’ve got no excuse.  

The logic of emotional discovery

Book: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Author: Mark Haddon

Published: 2003 (Vintage)

Pages: 221 

FINALLY. I’ve been wanting and meaning and planning on reading this book for absolutely ages, and then I get a copy at the used book store and then it sits in my trunk and then in a box in my apartment for another couple of ages, and then one time at work one of my co-workers talked about listening to it on audiobook and told another co-worker she had gotten to the part where he finds out about his mom and wasn’t it so devastating?

I had no idea what she was talking about, but now I do, and yes. Yes it is.
This is about a boy with autism who finds a dead dog in the neighborhood where he lives with his dad because his dad said his mother died a few years ago. The boy’s investigation of the dead dog turns up family and neighborhood secrets that upset him because they butt up against his overruling logic and he doesn’t know how to deal with them if he can’t count colors of cars or fit into an exact timed schedule.

I kept forgetting the kid is fifteen, but that’s not the writer’s fault at all. I don’t really work with teenagers anymore and let’s face it, once one gets to college one actively tries to forget what it was like halfway through high school, so I kept thinking he was a genius eleven or twelve. He’s still a genius, and I love how that’s just incorporated into his everyday thinking since it’s always been there, and I love the juxtaposition between that and his emotional awareness, which is underplayed nicely because he’s not concerned with it until he suddenly has to use it to get through stuff.

Very captivating voice, very solid reveal that grownups should not be relied upon as the automatic moral guideposts, and very emotional payoff from a very logical place. Bookshelf!

Preaching to the choir but I still like the song

Book: Science and the Paranormal: Probing the Existence of the Supernatural

Editors: George O. Abell and Barry Singer

Published: 1981 (Scribner’s)

Pages: 362

The conclusion of all these essays about how science has been able to objectively comment on the paranormal can be summed up by a sentence in the conclusion by Philip Morrison: “…but like everything we know, they are not too wonderful to be true.”

If you’ve taken a college-level science course over the past twenty years or so, none of these experimental results, observational data, or methodical dissections of “conclusive” proof of the paranormal will surprise you. It’s not there, guys. Science is like 99% sure, and I’m sure since this has been published it’s crept way closer to 100%.

I did enjoy reading these essays, though. It’s a collection of some great scientists who can write well, and they’re more obsessed with their paranormal subjects than the people who believe in the supernatural – they kind of have to be to test the phenomena so rigorously. But their loyalty to objectivity gives us confidence of their findings and how easily the human brain can be tricked, especially when it wants to be.

I don’t mean for this to sound snobby or anything, and I do think people should believe whatever they want to believe unless or until it starts to hurt other people – but it does, so I’m all for books like this that might save people some physical or emotional harm or disillusionment without the kneejerk emotional assault that a lot of disproving material goes for.


Borrowing devil music

Book: Southern Gods

Author: John Hornor Jacobs

Published: 2011 (Night Shade Books)

Pages: 266 

A little bit of context before I get into how this book managed to surpass lengths to disappoint me – my favorite Cowboy Bebop episode is “Sympathy for the Devil,” Eric Clapton and John Mayer make me angry because they are amazing blues guitarists but only ever decide to record absolute schlock, I wrote this post for my library outside of my regular job there, and a major goal in my life is to learn how to use a guitar slide like a sixty-year-old bluesman and not a two-day-old robot still getting used to its disproportionate finger.

So. Point being, I’m all for stories that delve into the devil creeping around and stealing souls in brooding sexy music, especially in times and places when this stuff was just getting on the radar and everybody was still uneasy about how it made them feel. That was a great setup for this, where a thug-for-hire is supposed to track down a guy whose music can melt every listener’s soul to the nasty parts and get them going at each other in a mass death orgy. Great start!

Then, we get into the family shit, and I realize most people feel a lot more strongly about family bonds than I do, but this goes beyond leaning on arbitrary bonds as a shortcut for emotional empathy. No, see, I could understand that if the characters transcended stereotypes (strong woman! Beaten but now strong woman! Innocent child! Dying bitch of a mother!), or if something actually happened instead of all the action coming from studying pieces of evidence real hard and jumping to conclusions that happen to be right.

And the characters get to the bloody, climactic sacrifice right after it happens. Literally. But just in time to (spoiler alert) save the little girl! I mean, well, patch her back together, at least.

I wanted this to be so much better than it was. The writing was clunky and the story didn’t end up making it easier to get through. Sigh. This will go back to the friend who lent it to me in what I call our Godly Exchange of Books – I lent him American Gods, which actually has a decent amount in common with this as far as the quest to stop an epic sacrifice by some crazy-ass evil, but does it better.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Melanie Bishop's YA novel of devastating secrets, hilarious friends, and growing up

Book: My So-Called Ruined Life
Author: friend-of-the-blogger Melanie Bishop
Published: 2013 (Torrey House)
Pages: 229

You guys, the first editor who ever published me has a YA novel out, and it's great!

Melanie Bishop, writing teacher and editor of Alligator Juniper at Prescott College, introduces us to Tate McCoy, a girl who is going through way more than any teenager ever should - her mom was murdered a year ago and her dad is being held as the primary suspect. She has to deal with relatives who mask their nosiness as sympathy, a whole town of people who treat her weirdly because of it (including an ex-boyfriend who dumped her when she needed him most), and making it through her last year of high school intact enough to escape to a good college.

She's actually fairly good at it. We meet Tate when she's had about a year to start re-emerging into as much of a normal teenage life as she can, and that highlights what I like most about her: she has a good solid grasp on who she is, or at least who she wants to be, and she's making so much progress towards it that when she makes an incriminating discovery as she's trying to face the past, her emotional setback is truly devastating.

It won't be giving away this twist to say that another thing I liked was how Tate's mom was not painted in any sort of sentimental light. Tate knew her mom wasn't a good person and saw clearly what made her that way and didn't want to go back to some fake happy childhood that never happened, but she still missed her and wanted her alive.

And the ending pulls no punches (trying really hard not to be spoiler-tastic here!) while still being happy for Tate.    

On the lighter side, Tate's best friend renamed herself Kale after going vegan, and Tate's goal of learning how to swim better gets in all kinds of the way of her goal to not date anyone for six months. It's all the cute swim guy's fault. These characters and the shenanigens they get into and help Tate with are really good at balancing the drama of the murder plot and also reminding us of the normal teenage life that will inevitably claim Tate. It's a good reminder than time will go on.

So are Tate's swimming lessons. She learns that you have to learn how to trust yourself enough to float before you can swim, and this is all kinds of revealing about how she has to trust herself to find a buoyancy in her real life before she fights it too hard and it swallows her whole.

All in all, a really enjoyable read that will definitely be staying on my bookshelf. Congratulations, fellow Melanie! And P.S. THANK YOU SO HARD for not writing fantasy romance. OH GOODNESS THERE'S SO MUCH, and this sort of thing is SO MUCH BETTER.