Monday, February 24, 2014

It's so Google.

Book: The Circle
Author: Dave Eggers
Published 2013 (Knopf)
Pages: 491
It’s Google, guys. Two seconds into the description of the unbelievable campus our young lost post-grad finds herself on after gritting her pride and taking a friend up on a job offer, the Circle is totally Google: an impossibly cool place where everyone wants to work and help them take over the world through full technological integration.
The story is straightforward – after an initial stage of skepticism, the girl gets fully caught up in the company’s work/life balance/fusion/obsession of transparency. She meets an intriguing dude whom she can’t find on any of the usual channels (and there are a scary number of them) and he tries to enlist her help in an internal takedown but this is, for once a relatively new book, so I’ll be dusting off my “no spoilers” clause and stopping here.
And anyway, the real star is the elaborate way this company’s innovations unfold in cushy language of common sense and well-being that might get even hard-core distopians to pause and say, “Well, those controls really ARE intuitive…”
Okay, fine, spoiler alert – there aren’t any giant battles or anything, but the satire is deadpan enough to show both how this stuff is chipping away at privacy in great chunks and to make some of it sound like actual good ideas.
I’m not entirely sure why I enjoyed this book so much. The protagonist is sort of flat, which might be kind of the point since it makes it easier to mold her into what the company wants from her, but she’s not interesting to read about especially, but it also makes her a reliable everyperson to reveal this world as it unfolds for her, but – and this is the kind of back-and-forth the whole book gave me. The satire is blunt and revealing but not actually funny but mimics real corporate speak so well that I honestly have no idea if any of these projects are made up for exaggeration or if Eggers is really good/sneaking about research. The plot, as mentioned, is really simple when you boil it down.
But somehow I sped through this. The combination is greater than the sum of its parts. I don’t know how that happens; I can guarantee you Eggers nor Stephen King nor my published-but-not-famous writing friends can tell you why, either. You put in what you can and hope it whips itself into something compelling, and there you go.
Back to the library for this one. My main reading project is yes of course geez I’m GETTING TO IT still getting through my original second batch of bought/volunteer houred books, but this is part of a secondary project in which I was bored one day so I went through the New Releases posts on my library’s website and came up with a list of 200 books I want to eventually read and check out, and since I designated this past weekend as Do What I Want Because I’m Awesome weekend, and since I ran into a bit of a brick wall with the massive one-volume collection of World War I novels I took from my bookstore pile, I ended up checking out four library books on my way out the door Friday. Yeah. You’ll hear all about those, too. I promise.
AND BEHOLD THE VICTORY CAKE I baked Saturday for after my BOOK SIGNING (it was anthology so we were all passing each other's around) (that is TWO LAYERS, motherfuckers):

Grave sight and supply raids

Book: Grave Witch
Author: Kalayna Price
Published: 2010 (Roc)
Pages: 325
Full disclosure here – some Thursday nights, I play Risk and Settlers of Catan and Zombie Dice and various other resource-management board games with this author. Since it was kind of a nifty path with some coincidences I like to think are interesting (but I have been wrong before), let me tell you how we got here.
Freshman year of college, I scoffed at NaNoWriMo until October 28, when I caved because I had an idea, and this lady was part of the local group I joined. (That was also the night of too many Oreos in queso [yes, I said “in”] which turned into the morning I puked in a dorm that wasn’t mine and then went to see Stephen Colbert on the quad. Because I have been keeping it classy since 2007, y’all.)
During my senior year of Oh God We Really Have to Put Out a Paper Ourselves, Don’t We? final semester of j-school, I covered Cola’s RoundCon with my reporting partner. We totally got free press passes that I totally used to go back the next day and sit in on a writers’ panel or three, where this lady was talking character development and the qualities of a good computer chair with four or five others.
This summer, I went to a karaoke party for no real reason, met a guy wearing a kilt when I went outside when Journey queued up, and eventually started going to his game nights where this lady came in and sat down and pretended to not notice my slightly unhinged jaw at the sight of her.
So! But the book: I borrowed this from said Kilt Man months ago and had been putting off reading it because urban fantasy and I don’t have much to say to each other.
Or at least we didn’t. Along with Jim Butcher, this story will at least give us something in common to gossip happily about at a cocktail party where we don’t know anyone else. Because this story is fun, and being fun takes it far.    
It’s about a witch who can see what people/the world looks like dead. It’s a sense she can turn on and off, and if she uses it a lot it wears away at her regular eyesight, and it gets her in trouble with the police she’s trying to help and the fae she’s trying to avoid while she’s finding out some family secrets that will pretty much change the entire way she sees her dad and his grasp of city power.
The protagonist is sassy, of course, but she can take care of herself and very grudgingly find help when she can’t, so she backs it up. She’s smart and talented but works hard for it and doesn’t even dip a toe into Mary Sue’s used bathwater. There’s romance, but thank the writing gods it’s not the entire point of the plot. It actively annoys her sometimes and is a quippy two-for-one source of internal/external conflict.
I’m not convinced enough to go exploring the genre on my own, but friend-guided tours of urban fantasy have so far steered me into very enjoyable snowday material. Back to the Kilt Man!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

"See the cat? See the cradle?"

Book: one-volume edition of Cat's Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Slaughterhouse-Five
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Published: this edition 1990 (Dell Publishing)
Pages: ...guys, I was forced to get Windows Eight when my laptop crashed a couple months ago, and I still don't know where the calculator is. I'd say about 900.

Like any sensible person between the ages of 16 and 30, I've fallen in love with Kurt Vonnegut.

I lucked out by finding this three-in-one volume of Cat's Cradle; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; and Slaughterhouse-Five at the used bookstore and was able to parcel it out one novel at a time over the past few weeks. I seem to be reading Vonnegut in diminishing order of his absurdity, because I went from a writer who inadvertently gets tangled up in the government succession of a tiny island nation to a rich volunteer firefighter who gives up all his money to help people to a semi-memoir of being a POW during the firebombing of Dresden. So it goes.

Of course it's all great. Vonnegut reveals the absurdity of the human condition through characters that take it as a matter of course and a light omniscient touch that seems to be chuckling out of one side of his pen while weeping out of the other. Out of all that comes a startling clear humanistic philosophy that takes no bullshit and is so deft that you'll wonder why nobody thought to put it that way before.

My favorite example of this is when the midget heir in Cat's Cradle talks about that game, which his distant scientist father always played with them, and the kid got mad that there's no actual cat or cradle, it's all just a bunch of strings. Also good: when Rosewater is contemplating how he's going to baptize twin babies, and he says he'll tell him the earth is warm and wet and round and crowded, and then: "There's only one rule that I know of, babies - God damn it, you've got to be kind."


Surprise, the guy with the creepy mustache wanted to do it

Book: If You Really Loved Me
Author: Ann Rule
Published: 1991 (Pocket Books)
Pages: 585

All true crime books have the same beats of warped love, sexual impulses, family ties, obsessive fixations, melodramatic senses of loyalty, and unexpected violence. This one's no different except I happened to pick it up first and - look, guys, you already know I'm an emotional reader. With my volunteer credit at the used book store and my inability to depend on a pre-20s metabolism, it's way less expensive than an emotional eating habit (although this went delightfully with the white chocolate chip cookiemuffins I baked for Valentine's Day, of which I got no photo before scarfing samples/giving the rest to friends).

David Brown is a guy who married five times, got rich but not classy (although he'd say differently with his phoenix pendent, oh geez as if, dude) off software data recovery, and got his step-sister-in-law to kill his last wife so he and SSIL could get married. At least that's what he told her when they were sneaking around his wife's back. So it goes.

He gets caught because although he's a florid liar he's sort of a bad one, and the SSIL finally wakes up and is all, "Um, why am I covering for that guy with a bad mustache who's been molesting me since I was 11?" and spills. She stays in prison because she did in fact pull the trigger, but the dude also goes to prison for conspiracy to murder.

The story is standard but well-reported and clearly written, with a couple stinger sentences that the editor should've cut but nothing that was overly distracting. It seems borderline sociopathic to call this book soothing, but all I mean is I didn't have to think too hard. That's a virtue, sure, but I'm donating this because if I ever get the urge again, this exact same author has like twenty more in the same vein, and I know where to find 'em (down on the knee-cracking bottom shelf).

We're just like you (no, really, we've even got the same whimsical observations)

Book: We're Just Like You, Only Prettier: Confessions of a Tarnished Southern Belle
Author: Celia Rivenbark
Published: 2004 (St. Martin's Griffin)
Pages: 270

You have heard all these Southern/ladies vs. men/marriage/childbirth and -rearing jokes before, I promise, but they're nicely laid out with a pleasingly low level of wackiness throughout.

However, they get old and tired (and that's not just the section on menopause - bah-dah-cha! Oh god, please someone STOP ME if I start actually using these jokes in real life as if they're real jokes that people really want to hear/read) by the end of this thin collection.

They're newspaper humor columns, and I have a feeling that if I were reading them in the paper they would be the kind I'd go to weekly to check the topic and then probably read all the way through to see if they're as corny as they look on first glance and get sort of a "meh, better than For Better or Worse" feeling. My mom would definitely cut a couple out and send them to me, but this is a lady who still uses scissors to cut physical newsprint to send me dog cartoons through the U.S. Postal Service (hey, I gotta decorate the fridge in my living room somehow), so temper your enthusiasm thusly.

I'm going to donate this and just add a couple more web comics about nerds to my RSS feed. Those are my true people.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Life goes on (and steals other people's boyfriends)

Book: Summer Sisters
Author: Judy Blume
Published: 1998 (Dell)
Pages: 399
In the Romance room of the used book store, I’ve been staring at and shuffling around a trio of Judy Blume books ever since I got there, and I finally gave in to curiosity and read one during the Southern Snowmaggedon of 2014 Oh My God Is That THREE WHOLE INCHES? impromptu days off I had a couple weeks ago. (That is not me making fun of how we do snow down here [we don’t]. I missed two opportunities to not hermit because I have no idea how to unstick my car tires from ice.)
I picked Summer Sisters because it seemed like a good balance between her restless housewife porn (Wifey) and teen angst (Forever) (I’m flying by the flaps of strange paperbacks here), although I didn’t bother for a long time because of the cover picture of two deck chairs which, in that Room and ladies’ fiction in general, means Heartwarming Times with People We Love and How They Help Us Through No Conflict Whatsoever and Trade Warm Affirmations To Confirm the Healing Heteronorms of Traditional Gender Roles or: Why All Anyone Ever Needs is a Porch and a Dog (Oh Yeah and a Man).
…am not the biggest fan of this sort of story.
So but this one didn’t fall too hard into that trap. It traces two girls, one with a rich family and one with a poor but neither with anything stable, who become friends at school and the rich one invites the poor one to summer on the cape and they fall into the usual and delightfully messy intimacy and problems of girls going through adolescence.
That is Judy Blume’s gift. She writes about growing up with bluntness that is artful in its bare truth and details, and that serves the first part of this book well in setting up the boys and the family ties the girls will deal with for the rest of their lives.
But then they get to the point where they’ve grown up, they’ve graduated high school, the poor one has fought her way to a good job in her dream city and the rich one has started her desperate globe-trotting for attention and meaning, and the boring reality of life as it naturally slows down into a pattern someone’s worked hard for or settles for because they can’t think of anything else hits hard. I mean like head-meet-brick-wall, what-the-hell-else-is-there realization that sends me into screaming existential crisis, especially when it’s a day I’m determined to do nothing and enjoy it. (Two things I’m terrible at: vacations and diets. When confronted with either, I immediately invent 5,000 things that need to be cleaned and/or cake tacos to be eaten.)
I put it down then, and picked it back up a couple days ago. Back at work and past the danger zone of the narrative, I read the fizzy ending without a lot of feeling one way or another. Everybody just lives, and it seems like it turns out okay for them except for the person who dies, and let’s be honest, that was foreshadowed pretty heavily.
I guess I didn’t like this book because I’m really tired of thinking about all it’s obsessed with, and also that it gets unfocused and generalized at the end. Pretty much all twenty-somethings have to do after they get home from their non-first-choice jobs is think about the next steps of life and what do they do once those are done and why are they considered so great, anyway? That’s a necessary part of being our age because from those questions come brilliance in the form of side projects, art, bold moves towards our actual first choices, and pure anarchic fun. But the process of translating those thoughts into those awesomeness-es is slow and painful, and I just don’t want to hear about something that goes nowhere anymore.
This is going in my donate pile.  

When Dutch and Japanese cultures colide in expert hands

Book: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Author: David Mitchell
Published: 2010 (Sceptre)
Pages: 546
You guys might think I’m a little star-struck (DAVID MITCHELL IS COMING TO MY CITY NEXT MONTH) and/or weird when I tell you that this story of 18th-century trade between the Dutch and the Japanese is absolutely riveting. You’d be right, of course, but I’m right, too, dang it.
The Dutch are all up in this tiny man-made Japanese island that has no idea what the rest of the world is like, and they’ve got a decent setup based on ore or something that is about to go ka-blewy from Dutch greed, Japanese suspicion, and British invasion. Caught in the middle of this and both languages as a reluctantly ladder-climbing clerk is a young Dutch man who sees a young Japanese woman who studies medicine and has a burn on her face and immediately falls in love.
But of course it’s not that easy. The girl isn’t considered good for marriage, and although the Dutch boy finally gets up the courage to propose to her on paper and she decides to agree (it means relative security), she’s taken to a monetary to act as a nun in a fertility-worshipping temple where the monks ritually get the nuns pregnant and…well. The babies are not exactly given up for adoption as the nuns are told.
So she’s trying to get out of there and he’s trying to get her out of there and the Dutch are trying to grab more Japanese trade when the British show up to grab the island for themselves.
It’s all told through a richly human filter of culture clash, mismatched languages, warring ambitions, and duty-vs.-heart, and there’s not a love-conquers-all ending to invalidate all the hard-won life that goes on in between.
It’s also completely unlike Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green, and that’s why I love David Mitchell more every time I read something new by him – he’s amazing at using a pitch-perfect tone for each of his wildly different stories. It’s like he’s fluid in a couple different instruments; sure, he can get an infinite number of songs from a guitar alone, but they’ll all ultimately sound like a guitar, which is not a bad thing. But the variety of switching from guitar to piano, and the intuition to know which songs sound best on each, takes his skills up a level.  
*puts aside metaphor* Definitely bookshelf for this one. I’m going to get Black Swan Green signed, because that’s my favorite, and if he’s selling any of his older books I’m gonna buy those from him. (If not, I tried. Hello, Amazon!)

At least I'm pretty sure it's a metaphor for... something

Book: The Cage
Author: Martin Vaughn-James
Published: 1975 (Coach House Books)
Pages: 191
I have no idea what I just read. This was the graphic novel equivalent of watching performance art without a program.
Brace yourselves for my practical side, because it hated the fact that the pictures didn’t go at all with the words and not in a juxtaposition-y or ironic way that shows actual connection even if it’s negative or unexpected, but in a way that made my brain hurt from trying to make it all mean something beyond a gnawing sense of unease that doesn’t go anywhere.
The post-modern side of me, which is admittedly smaller and less concrete, loved it, though.  The text was a sort of sensory poem about a cage that either morphs into or holds or is in this wonky room, and the viewpoint keeps flying around and images of pain and distortion are clear without ever being spelled out for you. The pictures, one big central panel on each page, are like that too, only in a different sequence that no I seriously couldn’t puzzle out any sort of meaning and dangit, fine, I don’t like that. I subscribe to the theory that there’s not much meaning in life and being reminded of that is kind of depressing, which is probably this guy’s point, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy my illustrated nihilism with a more obvious visual connection.
I feel weird and a little simple criticizing this so much, because the language is beautiful and so are the line drawings, but writing is communicating even if it’s super-abstract and I guess what I really mean is this doesn’t work that way for me. Back to the library it goes.

So many FEELINGS about BOYS, you guys.

Book: Heart of Thomas
Author: Moto Hagio
Published: 2012 (Fantagraphics collected English translation)
Pages: 516
Let’s just get this out of the way: if I avoided reading everything that reminds me of my ex-boyfriend, I would have like half a David Foster Wallace essay and a shampoo bottle label left. So when I pick up a manga novel (especially then) that happens to be one he recommended and convinced the American Library Association to put on its 2013 great graphic novels for teens list, know that A. it’s second nature to adjust for my bias by now and B. trust him, he’s a professional. 
That being said, I don’t know if you know yet, guys, but Thomas Werner is dead and he loved Juli but Juli pretended to hate him and those things probably have a whole lot to do with each other. This manga is set in a boys’ boarding school in Germany where everybody gets up in everybody’s business and the older boys rule the younger ones like tea-drinking herders of adorable dramatic puppies. One of the younger students falls to his death off a railroad bridge during the last day of spring break; rumors fly that it was suicide and/or murder for unrequited love. The object of said love, an uptight prefect named Juli, carries a huge amount of guilt about it that’s only increased when a new student comes along and reminds Juli of Thomas Werner in pretty much every way.
If you don’t catch that at first, don’t worry. It will be repeated in endless variation with added strains of astonishment and angst as more secrets come unraveled during the rest of the school year, complete with lots of facial flashbacks that float above characters’ heads in clouds of flowers, which sounds over dramatic – and it is, but in a very accurate depiction of how adolescent grief mixes heavily with sentimentality and helplessness.
One thing that I appreciated on a subtext-y, almost practical sort of level is that all the boys have crushes on each other but also think girls are cute, and no one even hints at mentioning that there’s anything wrong with that. This might be a standard thing in shojo manga; my entire sample size of that genre is this book. And all of it’s very Romantic, with a couple hints of creepy from the older boys and the fact that the new kid might love his mother a little too much.
So the end is resolved sort of as an anti-climax, but that was a nice surprisingly realistic breather after the 400+ pages of drama, and the forward that talked about how the manga managed to get into magazines and then eventually into paperback collections and finally into this English translation was fascinating.
It was a good read for a couple giant chunks over the past week but I can’t say I’m going to jump back in right away. Back to circulation for this one. 
Also, I'm doing this new thing here where I pair up what I read with what homemade baked goods I ate while reading it that week. This time it's manga and oatmeal cookies that came out a little flatter than I wanted (butter seems superior to shortening) but were still both entirely delicious.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

We are all doomed from the inside

Book: The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses
Author: Dorothy H. Crawford
Published: 2000 (Oxford)
This didn’t make me jump in the shower immediately after reading as I suspected it might because this focuses on viruses which are already too embedded in you to scrub off. Like, ever. Once a virus is let into your cells, they start making the viral DNA and until you start showing symptoms, it’s a free-for-all you won’t even know about.
Viruses are distinct from bacteria but can be mistaken for them, and much like a good number of bacteria species, viruses don’t necessarily do you harm. What’s dangerous is when they start replicating and/or are treated as bacteria, or when they spread before anyone has a chance to figure out medicine, or when they get inside you, stay dormant for twenty years, and then get turned on way after you picked them up. Even the HIV virus can stay quiet for as long as ten years before it starts causing symptoms of AIDS.

This book was written in the 90s, so it’s got a good not-quite-panicked chunk on AIDS, but first it thoroughly explains what a virus is and the different ways it can invade and tracks several historical pandemics as examples. It’s kind of scary stuff, and the medical breakthroughs aren’t 100% up to date, but it’s really interesting so it’s going on the bookshelf.    

How poetry saved the world

Book: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Author: Stephen Greenblatt
Published: 2011 (Norton)
Pages: 266
Did you know there’s this poem from ancient Rome that pretty much pulled us into the modern world?

When I say “us” and “the modern world,” I mean renaissance Europe, basically, specifically Italy, which found its emerging humanism all laid out in a manuscript that a book-crazy scribe found in a German monastery and carefully copied to bring back with him to share with other bibliophiles, who since books were so expensive (= pain in the butt to make and replicate) tended to be the upper elite of society, i.e. the ones who were doing all the thinking that led to grand societal changes.
Yeah. That’s what this book follows. It was sort of a no-brainer interesting to me considering how much I like books and consider them important influences, but there’s also plenty of high-court (from the Pope’s offices!) gossip and tracing of difficult yet determined journeys and did you know monks used to scrape old manuscripts clean to write over them when they needed more paper (well, writing sheets)? This author and I both shuddered over what was lost through that.
But even if we can’t get all that back, we do have a record of the poem that caused the “swerve” in thinking towards the modern era. That chronicle is bookshelf worthy.

Yer a wizard, Harry

Book: Storm Front
Author: Jim Butcher
Published: 2000 (ROC)

Thanks to a good friend’s gift, I found out that there is at least one urban fantasy series out there that I genuinely like and don’t chuck across the room in rage at the grating mix of “because magic!” and Mary Sues in leather pants and dialogue that thinks it’s witty.
The first installment of the Dresden Files explains its magic as it comes up (and it actually makes sense, you guys), follows the misadventures of a disgruntled wizard who’s just trying to keep up with everything, and yeah, okay, contains its fair share of smartass dialogue, but it’s all put in a very human context that is rare enough to have put me off of a whole sub-genre.
Harry Dresden is a struggling private eye who find stuff for people using his wizarding powers. He’s part chemist (with help from a spirit named Bob that hides out in a disembodied skull), part energy-channeler (with help from atmospheric fluctuations if he gets brave/desperate enough), and mostly improviser with what he’s got and the increasingly weird knowledge he picks up along the way. Here he’s trying to figure out who could’ve gathered enough power to blow out the hearts of a series of victims, and he stumbles across a weird black magic cult headed by a dude gone crazy with his new-found abilities.
Harry feels like a former slacker who’s managed to pull himself up to the level of hard work and now has to battle with the indifferent luck of everyday life, including skeptical quasi-coworkers at the police station headed by a chief who mostly believes him. Mostly. She’s a good character, too, with a background that logically led to her current position and a constant internal struggle on how much she should let Harry do on the case, and she and Harry interact well as dependent on each other without any romance to artificially inflate the tension. It’s very refreshing. We don’t escape that completely with the two other female leads, who both turn into distressed damsels at one point or another, but the main plot doesn’t hinge on it.
The main thing about this book is that it’s fun and that is a very good thing unto itself, so this is definitely going on the bookshelf. I’ve glanced through the library’s catalog and we have at least the next couple, so I’ll probably end up checking those out sometime. I sound a little less enthusiastic about this because I’m still wary of series, and I know that this one gets into a hidden-under-world-magic-war sort of arc later on, and I don’t know how I feel about that yet. It’s hinted at very subtly and naturally here, but this is only the first book.

We’ll see!