Saturday, December 31, 2016

Book Wrap-Ups 2016


I missed the first six months of the year but finished strong. Happy New Year.

Cheers,
    - Alli

Pleasing to the palate


The Ladies' Night Anthologies are collections of comics by women that are meant to bring together creators so that their work can be shared with new audiences. It's a great idea and helpful to authors, artists, and readers alike. In fact I liked the idea so much that I participated in the Kickstarter and ended up with a print copy of Ladies' Night IIII, Eat it Up.

Now, to be 100% honest this is at least partially because I am tumblr mutuals with Evelyn Zottler (whom all of you reading this should go follow) and I wanted to support her work because in 2015 we had a great internet comic conversation about pumpkin spice and she has since included a drawing of me in one of the coloring books she made. I love E*phi, she's the best, and her art kicks ass and she's a badass derby girl and tattooist and in general just rules.

But so does everything else about this book! It starts with a comic about a nonbinary person who shares one of my chronic illnesses and moves on to stories about representation and burly chocolate factory owners and friends getting in trouble with food over a language barrier. It's great, I love that it's a book about food and women and art and supporting each other and I'm so happy that I have it.

If you want to read the book to support indie artists or see some excellent representation of marginalized groups or to just work up an appetite you totally should! It's a fun SFW collection of beautifully illustrated comics that are all written with warmth and kindness and skill. I loved everything about it and I'm so glad I have it. Get it for yourself by clicking this sentence!

Cheers,
     - Alli

Various Authors. Ed. Megan Byrd. Ladies' Night Vol. IIII: Eat it Up. Ladie's Night
     Anthology. Chicago: Illinois. 2016.

Depth of field


I don't know why I thought The Theory of Everything was a book more on par with A Brief History of Time than a series of lectures, but here we are. What's funny is that I had the chance to hear Hawking give one of these lectures (the one about black holes) at Cal Tech a few years ago when I bought my copy of A Brief History of Time so I feel a bit cheated - I'd already internalized at least a seventh of the book in Hawking's own words before I even unwrapped the cellophane on my copy.

TToE isn't a bad book but it's also not much of a physics book. Lectures are good and important, it's great that people who don't read much about science have an opportunity to experience a prominent theoretical physicist discussing physics, but dammit I wanted more science.

TToE is fairly superficial - it's actually a shockingly fast read - and the tone is more introductory and colloquial than other works I've read by Hawking. The science is largely sound but it isn't explored in depth in any way (and Hawking's final thoughts that a ToE will be settled by the end of the twentieth century seems ridiculously outdated now, as does the book's exploration of string theory, but those are due to time).

I wish that this had been the first book I'd read by Hawking, it's a great way to ease into larger discussions on the origins of the universe and the history of time and unified field theory, but it doesn't do anything to actually increase your understanding of science if you have anything beyond a basic understanding of the current theories in the field. And I have juuuuuuust enough knowledge that this book didn't tell me anything that I didn't already know. There are lots of references to astronauts in unfortunate encounters with black holes but none of the interesting diagrams or thought experiments or mathematics that you will run into when flipping through more comprehensive books.

All in all this was something of a let-down. It's a great read if you're new to physics, it would be a fantastic way to introduce a young reader to a new field of study, but it just isn't what I was expecting, and I suppose that's on me for not doing my research.

Cheers,
     - Alli

Hawking, Stephen. The Theory of Everything. Jaico Books. Mumbai: India. 2009. (1996).

For our beloved general

Rogue One is a totally fine if somewhat generic space opera flick that doesn't feel like it really belongs in the Star Wars canon but isn't overtly offensive by its mere existence (lookin' at you, prequels). It has too many characters who all have too much backstory to get to know any single one of them well - it's hard to feel conflicted about someone you only get to know for about seven minutes, after all. My favorite part of the movie, by miles, was the sarcastic reprogrammed Imperial Droid, K2. My least favorite part was the inclusion of digital reconstructions of Peter Cushing and a young Carrie Fisher. Both digitally inserted characters looked wrong and out of place, especially in contrast with the beautiful naturalistic settings for the rest of the film.

I will say that I'm sick of the fact that every woman with more than two lines in Star Wars is either Mon Mothma or looks like she could be related to Carrie Fisher . Jyn could easily have been a woman of color or even just blonde because it's getting weird at this point. Also, producers, it wouldn't fucking kill you to include a fat character who isn't evil or a sex slave, or a disabled person who fights for the rebellion. Just saying.

The story is a bit trite, the characters are a bit bland, the settings are flawlessly fascinating, the music is weird as fuck. I didn't hate Rogue One but I don't feel any particular need to see it again.

But goddamn do I wish I had written this review in a world where Carrie Fisher hadn't died last week.

Star Wars has been a huge part of my life, I've worn the cinnamon buns on my head, I've put on the costumes, I've played Star Wars with my sister and hugged my Wicket doll to sleep.

I'll miss you, General Organa, but more than that I'll miss you Carrie Fisher. You were a stunning, flawed, hilarious, outrageous, outspoken, and important representative for women and the mentally ill in a sad, dark world. You gave us hope, even if that hope came from a galaxy far, far away.

May the force be with you,
     - Alli

Insectoid memories


I first read the short story "Bloodchild" in my Science Fiction class in 2007. It was my introduction to Octavia Butler and it haunted me. In her afterword to the story she explains that it wasn't meant to be a horror story, that it's supposed to be a fairly peaceful story about male pregnancy and respectful settlers. I think that part was lost on me because human pregnancy is real-world body-horror and adding aliens to that concept makes it that much more squicky.

Which doesn't mean the story isn't beautiful - it is. For such a short story it does a great deal of scene setting and relationship building that gives you just enough to let your imagination run wild. But then your imagination will run wild and it will haunt you.

Anyway, after first reading that story seven years ago I read Kindred earlier this year and purchased Bloodchild and Other Stories as a way of wading into Butler's canon without getting in over my head. I know I want to read everything she's ever written but I also know that she is a powerful author, whose words carve out pieces of the reader and leave questions and burning in their stead.

Some of the stories from this collection have featured heavily in my worst dreams since reading them - there's "Speech Sounds," a story that reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough at Last" in the worst way possible. "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" is full of slow, creeping ideas that let the horror seep into you as you read. "The Book of Martha" is existentially nightmarish. And Butler's own personal essays in this edition are a song of sorrow and struggle - little bites out of her life that explain how hard she had to work to do the one thing she knew she would be really brilliant at and how much the world fought her on it.

From all that I've read of Butler (two books - hardly a complete survey) her stories tell a lot about a lot of things on the surface but on a deeper level there are constant questions of control and autonomy. She's a black woman writer in a field that until recently has been almost completely made up of white men and I think that comes through in her work. Not in an overt way, though she doesn't shy away from discussing race and sex in her stories, but in the way that the writing challenges the reader to be good enough to deserve it, good enough to ask questions, good enough to see the oppression that is non-obvious.

Butler is a great writer and, again, I want to read everything that she's written. But she hurts to read, and her words wound because for something so fantastical they're staggeringly full of truth.

Cheers,
     - Alli

Butler, Octavia. Bloodchild and Other Stories. Seven Stories Press. New York:
     New York. 2005. (1996).

The physics of absurdity


If you haven't heard of XKCD, welcome to the internet. There's lots of porn and we like cats here. Glad we got that out of the way. But I brought it up so I should explain it - XKCD is the long-running (Jesus, it's been publishing since 2005) stick-figure comic by Randall Munroe, a physicist, programmer, and former NASA roboticist who has decided to bless the internet with aggressively hilarious cartoons. And, you know, some cartoons that just make you want to cry forever or hold your head between your knees to get over the vertigo they've caused. He's kind of amazing is what I'm trying to say, and I fucking love his comics.

Well it turns out he does other stuff too! Mostly other hilarious writing stuff for the purposes of this review.

Last year for Christmas my sister got me a copy of Munroe's book What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. She told me about a month ago that if I hadn't read my Christmas presents from last year that I wouldn't get any books for Christmas this year and I was shocked and dismayed when my family kept their promise - I got only two books this holiday season, one of which is an illustrated copy of a book I'd already read and the other is a book of Beatles music for soprano recorder (because I'm determined to be a reprehensible person in unique and interesting ways). So it was about a a month ago that I sat down and started trying to move through What If? in a vain attempt to convince my family that they should give me a stack of new books.

Well the plan as a whole didn't work but getting through the book was a breeze. I really had planned on reading it earlier in the year but it never fit into the schedule I was trying to maintain of reading marginalized authors. Finally I managed to fit it in and it was a delight.

The absurd hypothetical questions were collected through the XKCD website and most of them do a good job of reflecting the reading community of the comic. The questions are funny and interesting and once you've heard the question you have to ask why you never thought to ask it yourself. Munroe's answers are dry, funny, probably technically correct, and have a lot of fun playing with the physics they explore. Probably my favorite exploration in an answer has to do with a bullet with the density of a neutron star; my favorite question is one that asks about an absurdly large drop of water.

There's a wonderful mix of seriousness and sincerity in the pages and that's a lot of what I love about Munroe's work - he does a great job of making you feel an effervescent joy for life while also reminding you of what a magnificent gift the world around us is and that it is a solemn duty for all of us to care for and explore the world we live in.

You hear a lot about Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku as ambassadors of science who bring physics and the questions of the universe down to the level of the common man but I really wish I heard more people talking about Randall Munroe in the same way. He's sincere and he can be sarcastic but he never comes across as condescending, something I think almost everyone is sick of in Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

If you think the world is amazing but think that physics texts are generally too dry I can't recommend What If? enough. It's perfect for someone who wants to imagine everyone in the world aiming a laser pointer at the moon, and an excellent warning if your standard response to a problem is to say "what if we added more power?"

Cheers,
     - Alli

Munroe, Randall. What If? Houghton Mifflin Harcort. New York: New York. 2014.

Eco-education

Gary Larson is a funny man. I've read volumes and volumes of Far Side comics, which I started collecting from book fairs as a child, but I had never read There's a Hair in my Dirt until a link to the book as a PDF crossed my Tumblr dashboard.

The book is a funny, somewhat mean exploration of the problems that arise from people who want to take care of the world but know nothing about it. It follows the story of Princess Harriet, a beautiful lady who is keen to interact with the nature around her but who consistently gets things wrong because she tries to support cute, pretty creatures and save little cuddly animals but is disgusted with snakes and slimy things. She has a big footprint in her little natural world but almost everything that she does makes a negative impact on the world around her.

She tries to rescue a turtle crossing the road and ends up drowning what was really a tortoise, she feeds the cute animals in her forest and ends up supporting an invasive species that drives out the local animals, and finally she rescues a mouse from a "mean" snake. She ends up getting hantavirus from the mouse because she didn't realize that snakes are a valuable form of pest control that's much more helpful than harmful to humans who share environments with wildlife. It is the hair of dead Princess Harriet that is in stuck in a pile of dirt that serves as dinner for a little worm-boy; the story is framed by by his worm father recounting the tale of Harriet after his son complains about a hair in his dirt.

It is a little bit cruel, the worm family revels in the demise of Princess Harriet, but nature is cruel - or at least indifferent, and that's the main message of the book. You need to learn about nature because nature has no interest in taking care of you.

I think the main audience for this book is a lot like the kid I was when I was buying the Larson collections - a bright kid with an interest in science who also cackled over gross-out humor and is a bit morbid. I'm sure there are lots of kids out there who would really enjoy reading There's A Hair in my Dirt (the fact that it's a graphic novel of sorts might help) but it's got a message that's worthwhile for a lot of adults to internalize as well.

Cheers,
     - Alli

Larson, Gary. There's a Hair in my Dirt. Harper Perennial. New York: New York. 1998.