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.

Reading is truth; truth, reading

Book: Kingyo Used Books, volumes 3 and 4
Author/illustrator: Seimu Yoshizaki
Published: Viz Signature

"So how many volumes are in this series?"
"I believe these are the last two translated into English."
"Not quite what I asked."
"...there are like twelve more in Japanese."

This is a series that gets exponentially more engaging as it goes along, adding defter details about how manga touches people's lives and also fleshing out the life of the manga troll in the bookstore's basement.

My favorite story here is the one where a dude is crushing on this girl who's a big "manga freak" (their words, not mine - you guys're all wonderful little weirdos to me) but he's nervous to ask her out because he's afraid he won't have enough in common to keep her interest.

 But then when he finally blurts that out, she's all, "Maybe it's not about having everything in common but about being able to share our joys!"


So and then there's this great one about a tutor who wants to find something - anything - his professionally scornfully bored student will like. Nothing doing until he gives him this horror manga that scares a profound appreciation into the little bugger, and the manga clerk goes, "You know, sometimes the ugly stuff in life gives the beautiful stuff more meaning."


And then there's the story about a herd of Pointlessly Beautiful guys (again, their words, but the way they're drawn I can't argue) who are geeking out in the store and eventually make the homely dude spaz out about how they couldn't possibly be real geeks because they were too pretty. And the manga troll (who is actually one of the pretties - they just call him a troll because he camps out in their manga basement) follows him home and discovers the homely dude's huge collection of shojo and then gives him THE BEST SHOPPING BAG EVER specially reinforced with packing tape and cloth over the handles and the message is something like anybody can geek out over whatever they want but by the end I was way focused on that bag and how maybe I need a DIY project that will actually make my life more useful instead of just sticky around the edges.

 And there's another story about a collection of men who have been waiting every day at the zoo to see a special wolf come out, and another story about a girl who draws a crowd of makeup enthusiasts to bond over the transformative powers of Sailor Moon, and guys, just read this series already.

 Back to the library, and until I learn how to read Japanese or Viz relents and translates the rest of them for all the English-speaking used book nerds over here, this is it. But the power of books lives on!

Out of the family, into the cooking fire

Book: Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir
Author: Eddie Huang
Published: 2013 (Spiegel and Grau)
Pages: 272

So this is really fun. It's a memoir about a kid who was born in America to parents who immigrated from Taiwan and how he fought as hard as he could to distance himself from their culture growing up, only to discover it was waiting dormant all the time until he discovered he actually sort of loved it. See the kid in the cover photo?

It's reading that kid's thought as shaped by his quasi-gangster older ego. Lots of devious but righteous goofing off that meanders into full-blown rap-listening basketball-loving schoolyard fights-taken-to-the-streets rebellion. 

 His prose bounces around and snags slang into its rhythm like a good progressing hook, although it flattens out once he actually grows up and starts getting his stuff together. Success is boring, especially when he preaches about it a little too much, but I forgive him because he talks about food and flavor really well once his restaurant takes off.

 That's a running theme throughout, although not snobby at any point. He makes his best cultural connections through food because it's an international language that he can make his own and use as communication. That is something I so understand and I so appreciate someone being completely genuine about in a funny way that I don't *really* want to give this back to the library but I guess I have to.


Running in place

Book: I Want to Show You More
Author: Jamie Quatro
Published: 2013 (Grove Press)
Pages: 204

This has been on my holds list for a bajillion years and I got excited when it was finally my turn because CONTEMPORARY SHORT STORIES YAY. And when I got to the one about how people have to run marathons with these weird symbolic statues tied to their backs, I was all, CONTEMPORARY SHORT STORIES WITH THE OCCASIONAL TOUCH OF MAGICAL REALISM ABSURDITY, IT'S A PARTY NOW!

But then... the rest kind of fell flat.

Most of these stories center on extra marital affairs as slow burns of aching yearning that are withering or being strangled at one end or the other, and as much as I can feel the agony between the forced whimsy of the exchanges...guys, I'm tired.

I'm tired of all popular culture telling us that romantic passion conquers all. I'm distinguishing that from love, okay, because true love is a weedy wildflower, this tough, kind of prickly thing that holds together through a combination of rather helpless stubbornness and hard work, and still manages to push out unexpected beauty through the concrete, and it might be in the way but its root system turns out to be what's been holding the sidewalk together for so long.

Romantic passion is awesome and fun but I'm goddam sick of pretending it's the only thing that matters.

And the thing with this book is that I get glimpses of other parts of life like the author understands that, like the running story - I love that one. It's an amazingly absurdist tale about taking on unnecessary sacrifices to feel like you've accomplished anything, and the ending shows you in a very literal way how people won't let that work, and it's great.

 But the other stories get repetitive and a little self-defeating fairly quickly. I was hoping for far more whimsy.

Back to the library, where my holds list has been cleared until I finish the library cart shelf pile (ONE MORE BOOK, y'all!).

Shining in a post-Overlook world

Book: Doctor Sleep
Author: Stephen King
Published: 2013 (Scribner)
Pages: 528

My willpower is getting better by almost-imperceptible increments, y'all. Which means I waited a whole seven months before I bought and read Stephen King's new book. I mean it's still in hardback, so you can't REALLY tell I waited, and this brings up a slightly personal tangent that I would like to explore.

So I do have what I call a reading "schedule," the second word of which I'm putting in quotes because it's fairly loose within its own confines. Meaning I've made lists of what I want to read and the completest part of my brain insists on finishing these lists before moving on but doesn't care in what order I read these 200+ books. The books I've stacked up from bookstore credit count in this too.

But I go off-list so much - "Oh, it's Friday," "Oh, THAT was a terrible day," "Oh, man, I am walkin' on sunshine!" "Ugh, but this one is SO DULL" -  that I'm wondering if I wouldn't be happier just chucking the whole thing. There are always going to be way too many good books to catch up with all of them, and to be completely weird and honest and the tiniest bit of OCD, that stresses me out. I stress out about a lot of unnecessary shit like that and sometimes it makes me freak out and I'm learning how to not worry so goddamn much about the future and just focus on being cool with the happiness I'm getting from the moment and such and really, some of my best reads I've found spontaneously.

But I also really like making lists, especially about things I like to anticipate (food and books being the primary two).

It's a struggle to find which approach keeps me from making reading a chore, because if reading ever doesn't make me happy I will have nothing.

Right now, I still get a lot of joy and only a tinge of guilt at paying $32 to read Uncle Stevie and continue my tradition of buying a book from each new city I visit (hi, San Antonio!). And this is a good one, guys. This is worth it.


Have you read The Shining? If not, shame on you and go do it, but you won't be confused reading this one first. Which is really my one major problem with this book - we don't need the prologue. Chop it off and you still have more than plenty enough allusions and flashbacks within the story to know what motivates Danny Torrence through his drunken spiral, rediscovery of his shining, and teaming up with a powerful girl to defeat a cult of old people who are torturing the shining out of kids to drink it and stay young. Plus without the prologue, we don't need to hear about Dick Halloran's creepy-ass grandpa. If that was supposed to be foreshadowing, it wasn't hooked up right.

But there's lots of good here! The story is the clearest I can remember of any of King's later works, and the villains ooze just the right amount of menace mixed with an interesting dollop of human uncertainty. The leader lady has this top hat that is maybe the source of her leadership powers? But it's alluring and details like that lend a mysteriousness that hints at a chaotic universe that leans toward evil rather than beating one over the head with it.

And even before he manages to clean up his act as a grownup, Danny finds the perfect job: he's a hospice worker who helps patients die. His shining ushers them out into this deep peaceful sleep, and every time he described that I wanted to find a signup list and secure a spot for 50 or 60 years down the road because that's exactly how I want to go out.

So he and this fellow psychic girl find each other and can do this thing where they get into each other's heads to misdirect the bad guys' radar, so she's the one with better shining (mostly because she's younger - it fades) but she gets to knock that lady out (why's it gotta be a bad BITCH, Uncle Stevie? Huh?) while Danny's the one who's actually there and in bodily danger. The planning, buildup, and final fight were all practical (as practical as you can get when based on psychic powers, anyway) and not based on wild leaps of logic, and I appreciated that a lot because it made the conclusion well-earned.

It made sense, and it made me happy, and it's staying on my bookshelf.