Monday, April 21, 2014

Geek bait taken!

Book: Good Omens

Authors: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Published: 1990 (HarperCollins)

Pages: 369

Y’all, I finally reached this amazing nugget in the sifting piles of my unread books, and of course it was great and of course I enjoyed reading about how an angel and a demon who have been persnickety good friends for a couple millennia screw up their only real job - bringing about Armageddon – for the sake of humanity by going with a mistake that was made when the anti-Christ was switched at birth.

Gaiman and Pratchett have both separately mastered the art of injecting just enough levity into fantasy to make it reveal the absurdity of the real world and the genre’s own self-seriousness while keeping some real substance and profundity buried underneath all the duck jokes. Here is no different.

And my favorite part is subtle but I love that they don’t focus nearly as much on the Everyman character or even make him a hero. They’re necessary in the sci fi and fantasy worlds to give us a very amusingly befuddled tour of alien worlds, but here the dude’s just another weirded-out human who gets caught up in it and still gets to splutter adorably without having to climb unrealistic story arcs of redemption and such.

The angel and demon have become more human than either would like to admit, anyway, and they show this best when they find true morality hiding on the fringes of each other’s realms, manage to think for themselves when they realize that neither side is actually concerned with what they were told they were supposed to fight for, and stop the world from ended by pointing out how dumb war is to Beezlebub and the Voice of God (who basically just want an excuse to stomp all over each other).

I can’t do this book justice here. The closest I can come is to say that it’s funny and smart and manages to say something important about free will and not killing people when you can help it. I took it with me on a recent business trip where I got to go to the San Antonio public library’s main branch and read a chapter of it before I had to go back for dinner, and it was a great companion. And apparently I’m late to this particular book party because when I posted this photo on Facebook everybody’s like, “I LOVE THAT BOOK.” One of my friends even called me just to say that. And nobody calls anybody anymore, so I can only conclude that GOOD BOOKS ARE WINNING, PEOPLE, and my job here is not nearly done but is chugging along quite nicely.


Bookshelf! (What, I should take a library book onto two planes and a hotel room in which I’m pretty sure I left my last good hairband? Psht. That shit stays within ten miles of my nearest branch, thank you.)

Beyond no man's land

Books: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road (one volume)

Author: Pat Barker

Published: 1991, 1993, 1995 (Penguin)

Pages: 818

Technically this is three books, each focused on a separate aspect of World War I, but – come on, guys, ain’t nobody fooled here. They follow the same characters along the same storyline through the same settings, in roughly chronological order, and they all go through multiple angles of perspective, so it read like one giant-ass brick of War is Bad.

When I start with a complaint, it sounds like I hate a book, but I promise it’s usually just because I am naturally cranky. I should eat before I write any of these. But I did like this book even if it didn’t quite separate itself from the other – still deeply profound, mind you – world war fiction that questions the reasons by calling war protesters insane and slapping them into the mental ward until they agree to go back into the fray and by detailing exactly how disgustingly mustard gas can fuck up your shit (SO MUCH, you guys) and by exploring how fluid the definition and act of masculinity becomes when it’s jammed together in trenches for months at a time.

I think it helped me keep appreciating this to read other stuff after each book ended. Like I say, it’s basically all one continuous story, but there were enough flashbacks and reminders about where the characters were coming from to remember where I stepped in next, and if I had read all three one after another I might’ve gotten way too depressed about humanity while reading too much Wilfred Owen poetry with a helmet on to keep all the screams of despair inside.

But tempered with a lot of the stuff of reviews that have come before this one (in stores now! Er, or click the left arrow button at the bottom of this screen, yo), these are still moving stories of grim survival and the search for meaning caught up in something ambiguous and all-consuming and painfully polarizing.

I’m glad we get most of this through the observations and thoughts of the psychiatrist Dr. Rivers because he’s smart and methodical enough to draw out and articulate all the finer nuances that make the moral quandaries interesting without decorating them in sentiment and patriotism vs. humanism. It’s more complicated than that, and even though his job depends on him pretending it’s not, his professional unease at what cause he’s helping is our expertly explored view of humanity’s violence.


Putting me off my dinner

Book: The Last Banquet

Author: Jonathan Grimwood

Published: 2013 (Europa Editions)

Pages: 328

I’m gonna go ahead and spoil the ending of this because it’s the best part, meaning the only real coherent part, and it will tell you more than reading the three hundred pages before it anyway: after dude has finally satisfied a curiosity as to what human flesh tastes like, he gets his pet tiger to eat him as the French revolutionaries are closing in on his aristocratic-ass house and life.

Bam. Done. The rest is quite literally summation. During the FRENCH REVOLUTION.

I don’t know if my tolerance has gotten lower for SHOW DON’T TELL as I’ve started thinking more about the act of learning and teaching creative writing, but Jesus Christ on a chariot-driven sidecar, this guy goes through the weirdest shit and painful personal tragedies and one of the most dramatic upheavals in history, and all we get is a wordy shrug equivalent of “Eh, yeah, that happened. Here is what I ate.”


I did like the food bits, although I had to put aside my vegetarian instincts because holy hell does he like to eat anything that moves (I think he actually articulates that as his goal at one point) and also they boil an owl at one point. I CAN’T with that one.

So, yeah. There’s really not much else to tell you. Even the tiny collections of meditations on the nature of food as fuel and ceremony and ritual sacrifice never came together into one climaxing profundity, tiger meal notwithstanding, and oh my god if it turns out your frame is your main character is writing this as some sort of document, MAKE SURE HE DOESN’T ACTUALLY ADMIT IN THE DOCUMENT ITSELF THAT HE HAS NO IDEA WHY HE’S WRITING ALL THIS DOWN. That just makes me go, “Yeah, I agree with this guy. Why was this written again?”

Back to the library. Technically, it’s overdue, but we aren’t open today, so it should be all good, right? Yes! I don’t want to have to pay anything for this book because it’s kind of shitty.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Better run for your life if you can, little girl

Book: Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape
Author(s): Jenna Miscavige Hill and Lisa Pulitzer
Published: 2013 (HarperCollins)

Scientology, y'all. I'm going in.

No! Wait, not like that. I just read a memoir about a lifelong member of Sea Org who got increasingly restless and agitated with the whole shebang and so finally managed to leave with her husband before she was twenty.

And you know, I'm not looking for any scandal that's not there, and I'm not looking to prove that scientology is more evil than any other religion/corporation out there -although the fact that they are sort of a combination is worrisome, for reasons that the author(s) goes into a little bit.

 But, again, I wish this felt more personal. The descriptions about the work required and the convoluted education system and the enforced isolation from family are interesting in a facts-based kind of way, but her thoughts on her beliefs and what kept her there and why she believed and her increasing agitation feel one step removed from the raw humaness of it all. Once she started protesting and fighting her way out, the narrative became repetitive lists of going away and coming back and worrying over the same things without touching on the evolution of her emotional complexity. She literally just "got more and more scared" and stuff like that.

 Maybe I am incruably greedy, but I need more. There's another scientology memoir on my list of to-checkout, so maybe that'll delve deeper into the why and not just the what. Back to the library!

Breaking up can be cute to do

Book: Good Riddance: An Illustrated Memoir of Divorce
Author/illustrator: Cynthia Copeland
Published: 2013 (Abrahms)
Pages: 222

This is a graphic novel about divorce that is drawn in a cheerful newspaper comic style and written in a personal way that doesn't distinguish it from everybody else who has written about the same thing.

 Universal emotions are a great thing to harness, especially for stuff like divorce that affect a whole messton of people even if it's not their decision, and the last ten months or so have been my own exercise in realizing the truth in the cliche of painful feelings that everybody shares, but - something, guys. Latch on to some detail that capsulizes your very own experience with pain, and use it to show people why your own story matters and how it's worth their examination over the thousands of other generalities they can find vague comfort in.

 That doesn't happen here, and while the author/illustrator does manage to tap rather well into the fear and aftermath of emotional upheaval, a lot of times it lands somewhere between Girl Power and Hallmark (while still managing somehow to be less annoying than it should be considering its place on that spectrum).

 I didn't really feel like I got anything new from this one, and since that's the whole point I seek from reading, this is non-recommended. And it's going back to the library no matter what I think (I ain't no library fool, yo).

Friday, April 11, 2014

Everyone looks good in black

Book: I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)
Author: Chuck Klosterman
Published: 2013 (Scribner)
Pages: 199

My only other introduction to Chuck is his amazing crazy motivation essay for writers, and as such I don't think it's unfair to say I went into this book expecting way more zaniness than I actual found.
I feel bad about saying this disappointed me, because Chuck does some in-depth analysis of what makes a villian and how we treat them in both pop culture and history, and he does a great job of choosing subjects to highlight how unevenly the title is distributed.

 But. But some of the logic is overly twisty, and guys. Guys. Listen here. I don't care about sports. I really don't. Chuck almost convinced me with about four words on football coaches, but by the time I got to the end of the sentence I didn't have an answer as to why I should care about people who move balls around for a living. (Yes, major simplification. Yes, semi-hypocritical because why do I care so much about reading when it's learning about the lives and characters of people who don't even exist and yes, something-something-lets-us-discover-and-express-the-human-condition-siss-boom-bah.) It's just not my thing, and he narrowly failed in making me care, and that is about 85% my own prejudice anyway.

 So I guess what I'm saying is I can't decide if I liked reading this book or not. It's on my to-checkout list*, and I picked it at the time I did because I thought it'd be a fun mid-week essay excursion, and it was just a little more serious than I wanted it to be. Back to the library for more appreciative folk to discover its insights, I suppose.

 *I'm at a decision crossroads here, guys. I told you about that one afternoon I spent going through all of the library's website's New Arrivals posts and listing 200 of my closest picks to be checked out and read. I've mentioned more than once that my car is sprouting extra reads from my volunteer credit at the bookstore pretty much every week and that the only reason my apartment is getting any better at that is through stricter reading discipline than is sometimes fun (very mild OCD tendancy to have to read EVERYTHING I buy vs. the stress of that). So should I just chuck my to-checkout list and use the library as a spontaneous reading relief valve? I kind of feel like that would be best, but I also kind of still want to read all the books on my list, so if you have any suggestions on how to reconcile these two impulses, please let me know.

Exploring personal mythos

Book: It
Author: Stephen King
Published: 1981 (Signet)
Pages: 1091

This does not make my top three or five Stephen King novels, but it does sneak into my top ten for reasons I want to use this checkout as an excuse to explore.

To me, these 1000+ pages are the quintessential example of how King can manage to relate a good story through clunky writing. He uses his own recycled trope of the Magic of Group Friendship (tm) (played with better subtly and emotional dependence and way less freaky clown in "The Body") to discuss the pervasiveness and fluidity of evil, brushing up hard against infinity in the process. 

 So those are great themes, right, and a cycle of violence paints a suitably creepy vibe for the town that tries to stuff all its horrors down the sewer drains when children go missing every 28 years or so. But the vagueness of the evil both does its job to keep the creeping sense of dread high and frustrates the reader - okay fine me - by not *quite* explaining its reasons for being or defeat (which seems disappointingly easy for such a big book).

 The group of ragtag Losers manages to fight their way through their fears and Derry's underground sludge to avenge the death of one of their brothers. They improvise with the all-consuming imagination of kids, and then they finally put It to sleep through an act that expresses their growing emotional complexity into adults.

 And this is the part that I have the most problems with - again, not the thematic intent behind it, but the chosen way that theme is expressed - the only girl in the group unleashes the group's collective powers of love and desire by taking each boy into her by turn.

 They have sex, is what I mean. All of them, with her, one by one.

And it's totally consensual, and the boys are sweetly reluctant, and it works, but - Mr. King, you are leaving your writing door wide open for a feminist rant, so don't say I didn't warn you.

 All the women in this book are either shrill worried hags who want to keep their men from getting things done or victims who need to be rescued. Don't even try to protest about Bev, the main girl, either, because she's the one who gets beat up by her dad and then marries the same kind of guy later on and has to be taken in by the guys in the group to escape. For protection. And she doesn't get to save the day except with her ladybits, because that's the only power a woman can handle, right, and even then she doesn't get to be the one who kills It, just puts it in the same passive sleep It's always gone into, just maybe a little faster and a little deeper, and so 28 years later her boyfriend has to really get it done.

 Also, when the gang gets back together to fight It for good one last time, the Jewish guy and the black guy are the two who die before they even get to help face the monster. JUST SAYING.

I still liked reading this book. It's been at least ten years or so, and rediscovering some of the details felt a bit like I was mirroring the group's return to the hometown they started to forget as soon as they left. And whether he's repeating himself with it or not, King does an excellent job of portraying childhood friendships with that weird combination of spit and true bond that none of us ever really understand. And beyond the fact that all of the guys are in love with her(because why else would she add any value to the group - sorry, reflex), I like young Bev a lot and wish she had a stronger more independent future to look forward to.

 This is going back to the library. Like I say, I am fond of the story, and King never explores these elements in quite the same way, but it's not a favorite.

What I ate with this: the one remaining snickerdoodle muffin I made by mixing together snickerdoodle dough and plopping it into my muffin tins. I'm getting to that dangerous stage of improvising in the kitchen, y'all.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The start of a dream

Book: The Sandman Volume 3: Dream Country
Author: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Kelley Jones, Charles Vess, Colleen Doran, and Malcolm Jones III
Published: 1990 (DC)
Pages: 110

YOU GUYS. I finally started the Sandman journey, on the reassurance of a friend that starting with 3 wasn’t going to screw up anything, and on the ever-weakening resolve to wait until I can find full sets of series before I read them (and then I saw an Absolute edition JUST SITTING THERE HANGING OUT ON A LIBRARY SHELF LIKE IT WAS NO BIG DEAL, OH HEY – but by then I had read this and I want them for my own), and guess what it was awesome I love it when can I get the rest?
If that was a big surprise verdict, you must be really new here.
I was sucked in from the structure on, which is a series of short stories grouped in a different theme for each volume. The first story here was about the relationship between writer and muse, and holy crap is that some dark juju going on to make things of beauty and fame. A writer failing on his sophomore book goes to a creepy old dude famous writer and buys his muse for, like, a hairball that has some sort of mystical property. The muse is a literal lady, and – the most disturbing image/words combo is when the young writer gets her home and – uh, uses her. “Nervously.” Thankfully in just one regular-sized, understated panel. *shudders*
The middle two stories are about cats that dream of when they used to rule the world and Shakespeare’s traveling acting group performing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for fae folk who come over from the other side (of what, I’m not 100% sure) to watch. Will repaid some debt to them by writing this, and in the process of performance one of the true imps kills and replaces the actor playing Puck without anybody noticing.
The cat one was a cute riff on subconsciousness but not much else, and I feel like the Shakespeare one had a deeper meaning than I got from it, hiding just outside my sensory range and while I enjoyed them both I felt like the first and last stories had much heftier impacts on me.
The last one is about a super heroine with an indestructive but badly scarred body from testing at her secret agency. She has to, like, glue on silicone facial masks every time she goes out in public, which is understandably not a lot, and she’s mortified and lonely enough to want to kill herself except she can’t die. It’s pretty depressing and she gets a little overdramatic about it, but then Death comes in to check on her during another errand and adds a much-needed reality check tempered with the only sort of mercy she knows how to give. It’s great, and Death looks like Siouxsie from Siouxsie and the Banshees, and I can’t wait to read more with her in it and also meet more of Gaiman’s personifications and go along on more of their creepy adventures.
Bookshelf for sure, and I’m going to look for the other volumes as individuals. Or maybe just give in and buy an Absolute, because this one didn’t actually cost me anything.

A family caught up in overseas storms

Book: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
Author: Erik Larson
Published: 2011 (Broadway Paperbacks)
Pages: 365

I might’ve mentioned the cultural conflict I have about World War II-era Germany. Sometimes Nazis make me cry and think of my Oma, and sometimes they make me sing the loudest to “Springtime for Hitler” while watching the Wolfenstein 3D match of a video game tournament. The shame and introspection spectrums are fully represented.
This book falls squarely in the middle, the nice calm spot I like to call “ooh, interesting” that kept me interested in the history being presented. Good nonfiction writing seems to disappear into the subject, the writing quality only becoming obvious when it’s bad and you can see the knobs and levers (and dead doves…) of the trick (“ILLUSION, Michael” – sorry, been on a final season of Arrested Development binge this week), so I can tell you I was thoroughly absorbed in this tale about a reluctant American ambassador and his family who travel to pre-war Berlin and take that as a compliment to the author.
It primarily focuses on the dad and the daughter, who end up being influential for totally opposite reasons. The dad is a history professor who loves farming and writing about the Old (American) South and hates all the pomp and ceremony all the other ambassadors take as normal and is reluctant to make any sort of forceful policy decisions until he sees Hitler getting dangerous. And then nobody’ll listen to him because nobody likes him on either side of the Atlantic.
The daughter is twenty-four with a string of boyfriends and a failed marriage behind her and a love of art and culture with just the amount of anti-Semitism that lets her fall hard for the Nazi cause until she gets an up close and personal look at its literal destructive nature. She scandalizes and works to use her position to protect several of her lovers, but nothing ever really works because, like her father, nobody really takes her seriously. Because ladies can’t like sex AND be serious about politics, right boys? *rolls eyes*
Fighting for what they believe in the best ways they know how comes to depressingly little as the dad gets increasingly stress-sick and the daughter socially shunned until they are all abruptly posted back to the U.S. right before Germany gets serious about war.
It’s a good view on how Germany controlled what they wanted visitors to see and their international reputation in general, pulled from first-hand prospective that had the best view of both presentation and suspicion of what was missing and what that revealed about foreign policy back then. Somehow I can read all day about past foreign policy and not get bored, but trying to figure out what’s going on today makes me want to strangle my computer screen (because who has time to read books about it before it changes again?), which I hope says more about my slacking as a citizen than actual lack of accessibility.
This one’s a bookshelf!

Smiles to go before I weep

Book: Smiles to Go
Author: Jerry Spinelli
Published: 2008 (Harper)
Pages: 248

These short chapters track the days from when the proton was first dismantled, by a boy who cares about that, and keeping the weekly Monopoly game with his two best friends in line, and seeing the Horseshoe Nebula, and using it as a backdrop to try and kiss one of the his best friends when he sees her kissing the other part of their trio and suddenly feels weird and jealous about it.
It’s about growing up nerd, in other words, and it’s a great, deceptively straightforward way of showing a smart protagonist discovering just how much he doesn’t actually know.
This takes us to his annoying little sister (is there any other kind? I’m not trying to be smartassingly rhetoric here; your only kid Constant Reader would truly like to know if you can tell her) getting into a life-threatening accident trying to emulate her brother, which of course is the only way that it dawns on him that the reason she annoys him so much is that they love each other.
Nobody dies, and the ending is kind of sappy, but I do like how his mom has to tell him point-blank what it means because he’s still just a kid, not autistic or anything but still very fact-oriented and confused about All of the Feels, and I do like that the accident and recovery is difficult in a realistic kind of way that’s actually sort of inconvenient to the plot – it abruptly puts the rest of his life in the background and gives him some sort of perspective without delving into Hallmark territory.
I especially like two details of the before-the-accident plot:
1. When he and his best female friend finally do kiss, it’s great and he boy-swoons and is convinced they’ll live happily ever after… but nothing new starts. They’re still friends in exactly the same way, and it drives him insane trying to act normal and not blink about it before she does, and finally he just sort of breaks down in front of her. Not anything blubbery or over-emotional or declaring his life-long love, but just, “WHAT IS GOING ON I CAN’T EVEN” in a way that underscores his need for logic, organization, and planning, especially for something that is this confusing to him to begin with. Really good plot-reveals-character stuff.
2. Another eloquently revealed character detail is smaller but my favorite part of the whole book. It’s when his male best friend has to recite a poem in front of the class and he does “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” (I did that one too, in seventh grade! Robert Frost is one of those writers where you have to remind people that his massive popularity doesn’t detract from his artistic cred – have you read “Fire and Ice” lately? Go do it. I’ll wait. SEE?), and he mis-recites the last two lines as “And smiles to go before I weep/And smiles to go before I weep.” It underlines this character’s mile-wide and semi-unearned optimistic streak, and that’s cool and all, but I just love it to pieces in its own right. 
This is gonna bookshelf. It’s part of the slow (iceburgean, really) process I’m making in getting through all the unread, purchased books in my apartment, and it’s a very worthy piece.