Saturday, December 26, 2015

Star Wars Spoilers: The Physics Awaken

There is so much about this universe that I don't understand. The politics don't make sense, the parenting doesn't make sense, and the physics don't make sense. Let's start with those.

If the Republic is restored and the Empire is destroyed where does the First Order come from and why isn't the Resistance part of the Republic? Wouldn't the First Order really be the Resistance and the Resistance be the military arm of the Republic? At least when the film starts, before the First Order blows up the capitol of the Republic? And would blowing up the capitol really totally take down the Republic because if so it's a pretty shitty form of galactic representation. Why would the Republic have a single-planet (or even single-system) base in a universe where there's solid proof that someone can relatively easily destroy a planet? If the Resistance really is the military arm of the Republic then having them in a different system makes sense because then you can't target both Republic and Resistance at the same time. But that's also why your senate should be spread out and not concentrated on a single planet in a universe where planet-destroying weapons have been developed. Just sayin'. But the Resistance seems to be resisting the First Order, which gets us to the problem of history. Does no one in this universe have history classes? It's pretty clear that the Empire and its Storm Troopers were a not-good thing, so once its last planet-destroying weapon was destroyed why did anyone from any planet have any dealings with people who pretty clearly were trying to bring back the Empire. It's not like the resources for all this shit are exactly common - Bespin is where the gas for blasters comes from and Lando Calrissian was in charge of mining it - why wasn't the supply to Empire supporters cut off? Is there no way to track shipping mainfests or flight paths in this universe? The background of the prequels was a trade agreement gone wrong - so shouldn't there be some kind of embargo in place against planets with strong First Order ties? I get that we're talking about an entire universe here, full of faster-than-light travel and smugglers like Han Solo but if your government can't keep tabs on people building planet-destroying weapons then it isn't really a very good government, is it? Which means it was actually clever of the Resistance to go rogue and not trust basically anyone but it also means that no one should trust anyone and you're in a constant state of war. Wooo Star Wars!

On to parenting: when the fuck are people in this universe going to start being honest with their children? And stop abandoning them on sand planets? And tell them who their fucking parents are? Because I'm pretty sure we witnessed some cousin-or-sibling potential incest situations between Rey and Ben. At least I sort of have to hope we did because otherwise I'm concerned about why every woman in this universe looks exactly like Amidala. Why did no one sit down and explain to a young Ben, before his Jedi training started, that his grandfather was a powerful man who made terrible choices that tore his life apart and he eventually repented of? I mean that's probably a heavy load of shit to dump on a child but let's be real - if that child is a magic kicking laser wizard you probably want to start them out right and get all the dark family secrets out of the way so they can avoid making similar kicking wizard mistakes. Like murdering all the other apprentices at a Jedi school. If Ben had been sat down by Mom and Pop and Uncle Luke and had the whole story of Grampy Ani explained to him he probably would have been scared shitless of the the Dark Side (but we all know that fear>hate>anger>suffering so who the fuck knows, maybe it WAS explained to him). Also It's becoming painfully clear that the path of the Jedi is utter bullshit. Isolating children from their families to train with celibate kicking wizards who attempt to stifle all emotions is not an effective method of raising people. Jedi aren't supposed to love, they aren't supposed to be afraid, they aren't supposed to feel anything but the force (and its balances and disturbances) which appears to have the side-effect of making force-sensitive people occasionally kill a bunch of kids. So yeah, it looks like the New Jedi Academy is just as poorly planned as the Old Jedi Academy and maybe it's time for Luke to put together some fucking worksheets that he can send out to the parents of force-sensitive children to practice at home instead of consolidating into an easily-killable clump of people who ignore/bottle their emotions. Anybody who makes a mistake bad enough to end with almost all of their students dead and then fucks off for a couple of decades instead of attempting to rectify that mistake shouldn't be in charge of children Just sayin'.

Physics: So is Han force-sensitive and unaware of it or is the speed of light somewhat malleable in this universe (obviously somewhat malleable because 12 parsecs/flight to Degobah/other random faster-than-light stuff that ignores relativity)? Unless Han is force-sensitive and could use that as a cheat around timing there's no way that he could aim the Falcon at a planet to get in while its shields are cycling and not mis-time it badly enough that either the ship would just dissolve as it was passing through or they'd come out of light speed at its core or something along those lines. Also Starkiller base makes no goddamned sense. They fired the weapon once, destroying the seat of the Republic but as they're gearing up to fire again and destroy the Resistance base we find out that firing the weapon uses up a whole goddamned sun. Fucking what? I mean, okay, Tatooine was a binary system, maybe Starkiller base was a binary system too but it sure as fuck wasn't a trinary system or the sky wouldn't have gone completely dark while it was charging to fire. So if they fire again does that mean they're done? No more suns to suck up so that's it, two shots? Or does the planet hang on to some of that solar power to propel itself toward a new sun to suck up? If so how much time does that take because the kind of energy you would need to move a whole goddamned planet across that amount of space is ridiculous. And if you're trying to do so faster than light it's even MORE ridiculous. And stars are FUCKING FAR. Our sun is eight light minutes away from Earth which means that it takes eight minutes for light from our closest star to get here. The closest star other than our sun is Proxima Centauri, which is 4.24 light years away which means that it would take over 4 years to get there if we were traveling at the speed of light. We're in a pretty sparse part of the milky way but even Proxima Centauri (part of a three-star cluster) is .13 light-years away from Alpha Centauri A and B so it takes weeks for light to travel between those incredibly close neighbors. And did you know that there's a specific range that a planet can occupy before it's either too close or too far from a star to support life? Starkiller base just removed itself from that range and has to find a way back into it soon or everyone on it is fucked. Everyone on it is fucked anyway because after the destruction of TWO fucking Death Stars the First Order STILL hasn't figured out that you need to decentralize and contain your power source/weapon/overload system/whatever someplace that it can't be taken down by exterior fire. These people can carve out the mantle of a planet but they still rely on surface-accessible power storage? Bullshit. Also develop a new fucking weapon. You made a Death Star only more so. Why not make a bunch of mini Death Stars that don't actually explode whole planets they just burn off the atmosphere? Seems like this would be a good solution to that whole mobility/not actually destroying suns/planets/resources issue. You don't actually need to blow up a planet to kill off all life on that planet and it seems like it would take less energy to set an atmosphere on fire or fling an asteroid at a planet than it would to make a really big explosion. Or five really big explosions. C'mon, you've got tractor beams, manipulate some gravity and have fun with physics, don't just blow stuff up and kill stars.

Anyway, nitpicky shit aside I enjoyed the movie. I liked the interplay between almost all of the characters though I think there could have been a lot more development done with Han to explain his return to smuggling as a coping mechanism. I liked everything with the new mains, though BB-8 was adorable, and wasn't too annoyed with 3PO for a change. I hope there's more Leia in later films and I hope someone explains why in the name of hot holy fuck she didn't get force training or if she did why she wasn't engaged in the training of Kylo and the other apprentices because that seems like a better use of her time than heading a Resistance that shouldn't have needed to exist in the first place. So. Looking forward to some answers and pretty happy in general. And hey, it was a hell of a lot better than the prequels!

     - Alli

Low-key sexy, highly hilarious

My parents took me to see Out of Sight in theaters when I was 12. We had odd movie excursions, what can I say? Anyway, I'm happy that it was the first Soderbergh film I saw because I believe it's one of his better ones. Sex, Lies, and Videotape is good, Magic Mike is perfect in a completely different way, and the Ocean's movies are entertaining trash but Out of Sight is wonderfully fun and subtle.

There's so much about this movie that I enjoy - it's probably the best thing I've ever seen Jennifer Lopez ever do (SO much better than all the rom-coms she's been in since, for sure), George Clooney is predictably smarmy but still manages to charm, and the cinematography is lovely but I think what really makes this film for me are all the wonderful small roles filled by great actors. Albert Brooks, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, Catherine Keener, Dennis Farina, Luis Guzman, Nancy Allen, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, and Viola Davis all make appearances and are all fantastic no matter how short their time on screen is.

No, that's not what does it - it's how much ass Jennifer Lopez kicks. Or maybe how subtle and quiet the growing affection between the mains is. Or maybe it's the clever dialogue. Or maybe it's the way that Soderbergh will periodically select a particular frame to freeze and focus on for a second or two to highlight the moments the characters are sharing. Or maybe it's the overt comedy of understatement. I don't know. I just know that I enjoy the hell out of this film and I'm glad I caught it while scrolling through a basic-cable offering of movies a couple of weeks ago because it's nice to be reminded that there are quietly entertaining movies out there that are about relationships without having to be ONLY about the relationship, or about heists without exclusively focusing on the heist.

     - Alli

How about something cheerful for a change

Color me completely unsurprised that John O'Brien committed suicide shortly after he found out that Leaving Las Vegas was going to be made into a movie - and color me a little sickened that the copy I have has the words "now a major motion picture" superimposed over a still from the film as the cover. We can talk about the death of the author to distance creators from their works all we want but that still seems pretty literal and incredibly insensitive in this case.

I found myself enjoying a lot about this novel that was unexpected - there's a respect for sex workers and the difficulties they face that's refreshing, and O'Brien gives Sera a lot of agency that's a pleasant surprise for much of the first half of the novel. She spends the middle of the novel as a victim on someone else's terms but ends with autonomy and I appreciated that. Sera knows who and what she is and doesn't have a problem with it; Ben doesn't have a problem with it either, which is unexpected and pleasant.

Ben himself IS a problem but knows it and accepts it and does what he can to minimize the damage he does to others, which is shockingly touching from a character who so clearly should be despised.

But I think that's what I liked about this novel, and what I like about O'Brien. The back of this book is covered with blurbs that use words like "squalid" and "brutal" and "dire" and that marvel over how well O'Brien did with his unflinching examination of a filthy, sordid world. But that's a fucking joke. Sera's apartment is austere, Ben's choices are his own. There is brutality in the story but it's temporary, even for the characters. O'Brien didn't write "a novel so absolutely devoid of hope" as one of the cover-blurbers called it, O'Brien wrote a novel in which people abide by the choices they make for reasons that are their own. We're never really told why Sera became a sex worker but we are shown that she finds the work satisfying and that it allows her to live on her own terms; we're never told why Ben is suicidal but we are shown that he wants to limit the damage he does and his groping for death isn't devoid of kindness or recognition of the value of other people. In fact there's only one truly reprehensible, hopeless, disgusting character in this novel and part of the hope in the story comes from leaving him behind. Gamal is the only character here who ends up leaving Las Vegas and he leaves because Sera has defeated him and taken literal ownership of herself away from him.

I've been told by lots of people (including my good friend, Wes, who gave me this book) that Leaving Las Vegas is a depressing novel, and it certainly has its depressing points but overall I think there's a message of hope that people skip over in order to chide alcoholics and sex workers and lower-class people with lower-class lives in general. This is a book that ends with a kiss, and its heroine walking away into her own personal sunset, and no book that has this kind of respect for a main character who is a gambling-addicted sex worker can be all that depressing to me.

     - Alli

O'Brien, John. Leaving Las Vegas. Grove Press. New York: New York. 1995. (1990).

Perfectly though-provoking

What a delightful book. I'm not sure why I had the idea that I wouldn't like The Color Purple but for some reason I was convinced that it would be sappy and trite. Maybe it's all the talk surrounding the movie, maybe it's that I saw the movie during a summer school class my freshman year in high school and it wasn't well discussed in the class. Maybe it's that there's a tremendous amount of negativity surrounding black women authors and I'd internalized that. But I'm very, very happy that I got over whatever preconceived notions I had about this book and finally sat down to read it.

It's wonderful. The Color Purple is powerful and sweet and sad and angry and I loved every page. Celie's quiet disappointments and eventual vocal recovery from the abuses she's survived are magical and painful to read. There was nothing about this book that I didn't adore and so much that I wished I'd read and appreciated years ago.

I don't know why I never read this book in college. I was in at least three American Literature classes, I was in a class called "The Novel in the Modern World," but I didn't take a class on black or women authors and I suspect that's why I didn't come across it for class. Which is a damn shame because The Color Purple is most assuredly an important piece of American lit, a powerful novel in the modern world, and should be read by everyone who studies literature - not just people with an emphasis on gender or ethnic studies.

I'm so angry that I don't read more books like this. I've been working on it, attempting to add more works by women, LGBTQ folks, and PoC to my library but it's so irksome that this isn't automatic. My lit classes were mostly focused on works by dead white men (though all of those AmLit classes did feature books by black men and the Novel in the Modern World class included a novel by Jamaica Kincaid); the endcaps in most bookstores are dominated by white male authors, women's lit, queer lit, and "ethnic" lit are all in separate, hidden-away sections. I am well aware that it is my duty as a reader to seek out works by non-white, non-het, non-male authors if I want to be a GOOD reader, but I'm tremendously frustrated that books by authors like Alice Walker and Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler aren't handed out in classrooms, that the stories of women of color get passed over and ignored in academia.

So I guess that's my project for reading this year - at least one book by an author who isn't a straight white male for each book I read that DOES fall into that category. It's time to improve my library because there's so much wonderful stuff out there that I've passed over for much too long.

     - Alli

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. Harcourt. New York: New York. 2003. (1982).

Sunday, December 13, 2015

I vant to suck your gender roles

I love vampire stories. I love Anne Rice's moody vamps, I love the silliness of Fright Night, I like cartoons about vampires, songs about vampires, movies about vampires, and books about vampires. (And no, Twilight isn't about vampires it's about toxic relationships and giving up your life to a cute dude - so maybe it's about psychic vampires because just thinking about all the flaws in that story sucks away my energy.) But for all of that I had never read the big one that started it all, Dracula. So I fixed that.

There are lots of good reasons that Dracula is a story that keeps getting told. The novel is complicated and exciting, full of interesting characters and perspectives and it has a fair scattering of humor for all that it's a pretty serious subject. But there are also lots of good reasons that Dracula keeps getting reinterpreted instead of simply remade and I think most of those reasons are rooted in the fact that Dracula is a product of its time and thus is confoundingly sexist and laughably stodgy.

I actually want to give Stoker the benefit of the doubt on the issue of sexism in the story - much of the novel's action is predicated on bad things that happen when men try to protect women. There seems to be a pretty heavy suggestion that hiding information from women is a bad thing and that noble idiots cause a hefty helping of the world's problems. Mina Harker is clearly one of the most important characters in the story and the reader is constantly reminded of her abilities, but in like one of the most sexist ways possible. Mina's got the brain of a man and the heart of a woman, she's got a man-brain that's stronger than her weak and frail body, she's a saint among women who is beautiful and pure, she's brilliant and so has to be kept away from knowledge because she's also sensitive and it might prove too much for her. Stoker obviously wants his readers to admire Mina but he also wants them to never, ever, for a single second, forget that she is a woman and thus unequal to the men around her - she may be smarter but she's also weaker; they may be noble but she's pure. YES I GET IT SHE HAS A SANCTIFIED AND UNTAINTED VAGINA WHICH ALLOWS HER TO BE MORE IN TUNE WITH GOD, THANK YOU FOR PASSING ON YOUR GROSS PURITY CULTURE, VICTORIANS.

I liked a lot of Dracula. I liked the epistolary narrative, I liked Van Helsing's speech patterns and humor, I liked Jonathan Harker's initial disbelief and growing horror, I liked the triumvirate whose friendship survived proposing to the same woman, I liked Renfield's wobbling sanity. But I didn't like the constant reminders about the importance of purity in women, I didn't like the illustration of corruption through failed women, and I didn't much care for the upper-class snobbery that clings to every part of the story like a film. There's a lot that's good about Dracula, and the story is tremendously engaging. But it's also a product of its time and is horribly dated and jarring as a result.

     - Alli

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Trident Press International. Naples: Florida. 2001. (1897).

Not a good sign

Last month I saw Spectre, the newest entry in the James Bond series. (I know, I'm really behind on blogging; it's been an interesting year.) Now that I'm sitting down to actually blog about the film I'm finding that I remember very little of the film unless I concentrate very hard. And that's not a good sign.

Daniel Craig is my favorite Bond. I think Casino Royal is brilliant, I completely enjoyed Skyfall and thought it was a very good film, and I even liked Quantum of Solace, which is widely considered terrible. I remember enjoying Spectre in the theater, I remember having a lot of fun watching it, and I remember essentially nothing about the plot.

There was a Jaws-like villain with evil thumbnails? And a pretty cool car chase in Italy? Monica Bellucci wasn't in the movie enough - I do remember that. Cristoph Waltz is fun to watch but doesn't appear to have much of a dramatic range (or maybe he's just being typecast these days). I don't know. I don't know. I can throw a lot of individual bits of information at you but I can't really remember the movie.

The title sequence was fun as fuck to watch but I can't recall the song. I do seem to remember that Tom Ford suits played heavily in the film but only because I fucking hate Tom Ford and thought they should have looked for a less douchey clothier. There was a fight scene on a train! It was really good but it didn't make a hell of a lot of sense. But then neither did much of the rest of the movie.

Um. Maybe I should give a spoiler warning for the one thing that really stuck out.
They made Blofeld really fucking stupid. His motivation for being the head of Spectre as laid out by this film is implausibly idiotic. SPOILERS: Blofeld started an international criminal organization, killed his own father, and faked his death to get back at Bond because when Bond was orphaned Blofeld Senior told Ernst to treat James like a brother. That's it. All the glorious cat-and-mouse of the last three films boils down to sibling rivalry. FUCKING WHAT. EXCUSE ME. EXCUSE ME THAT'S MORE STUPID THAN ANYTHING IN A ROGER MOORE BOND FILM.

So I guess that's where I'm at. I walked out of the theater happy because it was an entertaining action movie but by the next day I was busy screaming about some really flawed creative choices and the really flawed creative choices have stuck around more in my memory than the fun parts of the film that I enjoyed.

That's...that's not how it's supposed to work.

     - Alli

Hot and cold

I don't get Hesse. I was pretty lukewarm on Siddhartha, I enjoyed Demian, but it took me weeks to read Steppenwolf because I had so much trouble getting into it and enjoying it. Maybe it's that the first two books have actual chapters, and you can easily plan a course of reading in bite-sized chunks while Steppenwolf doesn't break down into smaller sections easily. Maybe it's that Demian and Siddhartha are from the perspectives of younger people while Steppenwolf is told by a man who's set in his ways. Maybe it's that Steppenwolf is more pointedly metaphysical and fantastical than the two other stories. Maybe it's just that Steppenwolf is longer. But something about this book just didn't work for me.

And it was all the more frustrating because the first fifty or so pages DID work for me - I really enjoyed and dug into the beginning of this novel but by the time I reached the Steppenwolf pamphlet in the story I lost interest. The book went suddenly from introspective and wounded to masturbatory and lurid.

Maybe it's that the characters Hesse wrote were such boys. They're all clearly male, almost all feverishly masculine, and not a one of them is really mature. And that's tolerable in books about boys but Steppenwolf is a book about a grown-ass man who still wants people to fawn over him and pity him like a spoiled child.

AND THEY DO. Hermine is explicit about babying Harry Haller, the landlady babies him, he throws a tantrum like a baby when his college friend's wife doesn't respect his vision of Goethe. The only characters who don't bend over backwards to give Harry sex or drugs or an education or validation are Mozart in a dream sequence (who instead spends his time rightly teasing Harry) and Harry himself, who is correct in his impatience with what he is.

And I guess I'm frustrated. Hermine is a fantastic character who remains a complete and unsatisfying mystery. There's so much I want to know about her but I left the book knowing nothing about this fascinating woman except that she was willing to drop everything to shape her life around improving Harry's life. The same is true of essentially every other person in this story. They're all interesting and I want to know more but all I learn is that they love and want to care for Harry.

Which I guess is how I'm going to have to enjoy this novel. I'll accept it as a brilliant temple to exploring masculine fragility and the obsession with worshiping male mediocrity, but as anything other than a cutting criticism of those concepts the book is a disappointment.

     - Alli

Hesse, Herman. Steppenwolf. Bantam Books. New York: New York. 1971. (1929)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Stories to tell

The mistake I made in preparing to write this blog was clicking on the Wikipeda page that tracks all of the connections to The Dark Tower series in the Kingiverse. That ate up a couple of good hours and all just so that I could tell you that there was an eight year gap in the publication of The Dark Tower and The Wind through the Keyhole. Which is, incidentally, a delightful book.

When I was a kid my dad used to read "The Pension Grillparzer" to my sister and I. It's a short story in the middle of The World According to Garp and was my first introduction to John Irving. As I've grown up and moved through life and giant piles of books I've mentally created a category of Grillparzers - stories within stories that might work as bedtime stories to introduce my potential children to authors I like. I love this sort of thing. Everyone knows about the play within a play from Hamlet but no one seems to talk enough about the self-contained worlds you can discover in other books. Neil Gaiman seems to be particularly good at this (in addition to hiding stories in his introductions and end notes), within-a-storytelling is very present in Lord of the Rings, you'll find lots of within-a-storytelling in any universe that needs to have a background mythology set up fairly quickly so you see a fair amount of it in SciFi. There are sections of The Wind through the Keyhole that are going to be read to my children at some point in the future. And  they won't even be traumatized by the Stephen Kingishness of the story because this isn't a horror story, it's a fairy tale.

The structure of the book is a bit clunky, which I guess is probably clear from the paragraph above. There's a frame story, a main narrative, and then the story within a story that's really more of a standalone novella. The frame story is really only there to remind you of the world we're watching from in case anybody forgot what was going in the eight year break from Mid World; the main narrative is an action story with monsters and gunslingers who are still young enough to not anticipate big mistakes; the story within a story is really the meat of the thing, though. It tells a story of magic and dragons and nuclear mutants and terrifying storms that all pale in comparison to the sheer stupid horror of human pettiness. It's a wonderful little moralistic story that is spooky and sad and about how absolutely much it sucks to grow up and lose the magic in the world.

I've written enough about King that everyone reading should know I'm a huge nerdy fan but this is one of those nice reminders. King's books are all over the map - he's written a western/magical epic, a story about a dog with rabies, alien horror stories, werewolf stories, vampire stories, a terrifying story about rats in a cellar, a novella about a man wrongly imprisoned, a novella about a decapitated corpse performing Lamaze breathing, at least four post-apocalyptic thrillers, and one very good book about a good but stupid king who once killed a dragon. Now there's another story that's essentially unlike any of the others but fits into the King canon brilliantly. It's excellently done and I'm very happy to have read it.

     - Alli

King, Stephen. The Wind through the Keyhole. Scribner. New York: New York. 2012.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A promise to myself to stop reading shitty "humor" books

Twede's Diner is the restaurant that was the set of the Double R Diner in Twin Peaks. Every time I go to Washington I make a point of stopping at Twede's and having a cup of coffee and taking some time to stare up at the imposing misty ridge that is Mount Si.

Twede's is an okay diner, it's not great. They really want to capitalize on the fact that they were the set for a cult hit TV show and I've got no problem with that. It's their table reading I've got a problem with. They've got "funny" books on their tables, where the word "funny" is a goddamned lie.

There's a particular breed of awful comedy book that's ubiquitous at diners and greasy spoons close to touristy spots all across America. I know I've run into these things on road trips, usually at a shack that sells burgers and happens to be close to an absurd statue of some kind. I guess they're put on tables to entertain weary travelers who have become numb to the company of their companions and need something non-taxing to look at while waiting for a burger and avoiding playing yet another fucking road game. The problem is that these books are all fucking stupid and Mifflin Lowe's I Hate Fun is one of these books.

This is my husband's book, and since it was published about thirty years ago and I'd be shocked if it was popular enough to have been reprinted I'm guessing it was an inherited top-of-the-tank reader from the apartment he lived in when we started dating. It's full of bite-sized sections describing how various types of "fun" activities are actually physically risky or involve dealing with idiots or just take too much time and effort. It's an activity guide written by Marvin from The Hitchikers' Guide to the Universe, basically.

I can see where this kind of thing might be amusing now - a writer could easily sit down and shit out an essay or so a day that sneers at camping or dancing or sex and getting it in a spread-out format might be okay. But two hundred pages of this kind of shit is a bit much, and that's coming from someone whose favorite activity is bitching about books.

And I Hate Fun really suffers from being a product of its time. Even as recently as ten years ago no one would have been startled by, say, transphobia in a countertop joke book. But I was startled to run across two obviously transphobic jokes in the first five pages of the book, with plenty of examples of homophobia, misogyny, and a few "was that a rape joke?" moments tossed in for good measure. What makes it even more startling is that the book's tone reaches for erudite and civilized - too good for petty things like camping or dancing or going to the theater - but these punching-down jokes made it sound like a Southern Baptist trying to talk like a New York ad exec.

The overall tone of the book is amusing, I'll give it that. I was generally content to smirk along with the continued attitude that just staying home, not bothering to socialize, and reading a book because the outdoors is terrible is the safest and best entertainment option. It was a bit obvious, sure, and it was stretched way too thin to justify a whole book, but there was a kernel of cynical schadenfreude that would have made I Hate Fun into a much better essay than a book.

Anyway. Don't read this book. It's awful. And while you're at it avoid shitty humor books in general. You'll know them because they're basically the only books in the "humor" section at your local book store.

As a side note, finding funny books is damned near impossible. I'm certainly not the first one to notice this or comment on it but we have done the "humor" section a grave disservice. Wacky political quotes, collected newspaper comics, and anything that describes itself as "knee-slappingly" "gut-bustingly" or any other variety of "body-part-damagingly" funny is less than we deserve. I vote for a "funny novels" section or "authors with a sense of humor" section. So here are some books that I thought were actually funny: I've laughed aloud at least once in every Neal Stephenson book I've ever read (and the Baroque Cycle is very funny for quite a lot of its 1700 page run time); I literally cried laughing several times while reading David Wong's John Dies at the End; Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is funny in the saddest way you can imagine, as is anything written by Camus; Hunter S. Thompson is reliably amusing and exhausting; Jane Austen is ridiculously funny, she doesn't have a single novel out there that doesn't have at least one tremendously amusing side-story. That's all I can think of right now, but hopefully I'll be able to read more funny books to give my opinions on if I stop spending time reading shitty books like I Hate Fun.

     - Alli

Lowe, Mifflin. I Hate Fun. Price Stern Sloan. Los Angeles: California. 1991.

Saturday, October 31, 2015


Oh wow. Finally. Wow. What a book.

I started reading Yu+Me Dream when I was 18. It was originally published as a webcomic with somewhat erratic updates and at some point (actually pretty close to the end of the story) I stopped reading it. I just got caught up in other things and kind of never came back.

Years later I found Megan Rose Gedris's work elsewhere online and eventually started following her on tumblr. Not too long ago she started putting chapters of Yu+Me up on one of her secondary accounts and I started reading it again from the beginning. But then Gedris had an odd sort of month, decided to sell the backlog of books she had in her basement, and offered the Yu+Me omnibus edition for an incredibly great price and I just bought the whole thing.

Then sat down and raced through the whole story in about six hours as soon as the books were delivered.

It's. Well. It's just great. The art, the story, the characters, the journey. I love it. Gedris describes it as a surreal lesbian romance adventure comic but that doesn't get deep enough into what it is. It's Alice in Wonderland exploded. It's lucid dreaming you can hold in your hands. It's unbelievably beautiful and wonderfully complicated, and I am all about it. There are dozens of threads that intertwine throughout the story, each gently and inexorably tugging you along to the conclusion, calling to you and asking you to go just a little further down this bright, beautiful rabbit-hole to find out what happens.

If that sounds appealing to you you can read the whole comic on Gedris's website. I recommend you do that because holy shit is it amazing. If that doesn't sound appealing to you I don't know what to say to you - this is a great comic that everyone in the world can read for free. But what you should really do is read it then pay for it or buy something from the author's store because Megan Rose Gedris is too good for this world and generates so much wonderful content that she offers up to the world for free that we should do all we can to shower her in money.

     - Alli

Gedris, Megan Rose. Yu+Me Dream. Rosalarian. Grand Rapids: Michigan. 2014.

Fuck Allegory - the case for directness

Everyone knows that SciFi and Fantasy stories are allegorical. And usually they're pretty fucking political too, just in case you wanted to get yanked off about the Hugos. The Beyond Anthology basically says "fuck allegory, we're going to tell our fucking stories."

There have been LGBT characters in SciFi and Fantasy as long as those genres have existed. Look at Frankenstein, for fuck's sake. The relationship between Victor and his creation is way more important than any other relationship in the story, it was written by someone who spent a lot of time hanging out with Byron, and it's about forbidden explorations of humanity. It's clearly a queer novel. But for some reason stodgy folks in classrooms like to sidestep that and talk about god instead. So Beyond is a relief. There's no question here that the characters we're being shown fall under the queer umbrella. There's no room to claim that a character's transness isn't canon because transness is made explicit. So sexuality and gender identity in these stories aren't hidden under layers of outdated pear-clutching, which opens up some fascinating fictional possibilities.

It's also remarkable how little difference something so impactful makes to the stories. These are all great SciFi and Fantasy stories that ALSO allow LGBT readers to see themselves represented. The plot isn't sidelined by the backgrounds of the characters, the characters simply are who they are and the stories are amazing. It isn't labored, it doesn't ring false, it isn't a big deal - it's just great stories that happen to include LGBT characters, which is kind of a big deal.

I'm not making much sense, I know. I'm kind of too excited to make much sense. Beyond is fantastic. It's a joy to read. At least 5 of the stories were so touching they made me weep as I turned the pages. The art alternates between gorgeously realistic and unexpectedly cute from page to page, and it all works. This is a great collection, I love it, and I've gotta go find myself a copy because I borrowed this one from a friend.

So fuck allegory, at least some of the time. We shouldn't have to have straight/cis/white/male as the default in our SF&F anymore, we know those aren't the people reading the stories, writing the stories, or filling up the world. It's time to let everyone shine.

     - Alli

Monster, Sfe R. Ed. Various Authors. Beyond. 2015.

Everything is sexy and adorable

I was lucky enough to be able to contribute directly to the Kickstarter campaign for Smut Peddler 2012 but I just didn't have the cash for the 2014 edition. In spite of that I was able to get my hands on a physical copy by buying directly from Megan Rose Gedris, one of the artists included in Smut Peddler 2014.

Last time I reviewed a Smut Peddler I went through and talked about each story briefly. I'm not going to do that this time because, holy shit, there is a lot of excellent porn in this collection and I'm not going to be able to do each story justice in this format.

But it's super good porn. Just so you know.

The book is full of delightful erotica from a bunch of artists I adore, it's got a wide variety of body types and pairings/groupings represented. There are queer comics, trans comics, straight comics, witch comics, and basically just everything you could ever ask for when you're looking for a fun, slippery wank.

Go find Smut Peddler. Do you like being horny? Do you like to masturbate? Do you like to have pictorial representations of all sorts of horny folks/robots/supernatural beings while you masturbate? Smut Peddler is for you.

And seriously, the art is just fantastic. Everyone puts their best work forward when they're pitching for this collection - the stories are spot-on and the illustrations are staggering.

     - Alli

Various Authors. Smut Peddler 2014 Edition. Iron Circus Comics. 2014.

Into the black

 People get too worked up when children's authors branch out into writing books about murder, sex, and mayhem. At least I'm pretty sure that's why JK Rowling took on the name of Robert Galbraith when she started writing her excellent Cormoran Strike murder mysteries.

These are gory, aggressive, and very adult novels. They're packed with dark themes and conflicted characters, there's an underlying sense of cynicism that pervades the big detective's life and work that doesn't seem to mesh with the hopeful, bright-eyed world of Hogwarts. And that's delightful.

I'm stoked that Rowling hasn't typecast herself into writing only one kind of story, and I'm bummed that I have to preface writing about Strike with a brief discussion of Harry. Rowling has done a remarkable thing and written a series of novels that have defined a generation then turned around and written another series of novels that would have no problem standing on their own two feet as excellent mystery novels had they been written by someone entirely else.

So anyway, here's the breaks: I'm never again going to mention that Galbraith and Rowling are the same. These books deserve better than that.

Strike is fantastic. I love the angry fucker; he's an arrogant prick who constantly second-guesses himself and I adore the flaws in the character. He knows how badly he's capable of fucking up. He knows he's far from perfect. But he soldiers on and keeps butting his thick head against the world anyway, and I admire the crafting of that contradictory monster.

I particularly enjoyed the Robin/Cormoran byplay in this novel - some things seemed a bit strained and overemphasized in their interactions but overall they worked well together as developing characters. I DO have a pretty massive problem with something revealed in Robin's background, but since the novel was only published this month I'll leave off on specific criticisms of plot points until I reread it so that I can avoid spoilers.

And here's where I've got a problem: It's really fucking hard to review a mystery novel without spoiling the mystery. So I'll leave it here and say that it was a very fun read that I raced through, looking forward to figuring out whodunnit alongside the characters. I'd recommend it for sure, but I'd warn anyone coming in to it cold that it's pretty impressively violent and to approach with caution if you're sensitive to that sort of thing.

     - Alli

Galbraith, Robert. Career of Evil. Mulholland Books. New York: New York. 2015.


I grew up reading Mad Magazine. It was a lot of fun at the time, though it seems a lot less clever now. But I always liked the art. And I always liked the Spy Vs. Spy comics, with their over-the-top ultraviolence and ghoulish giddiness.

My enjoyment of Spy Vs. Spy may have been influenced by the fact that it was single-serving; in each issue of Mad you could expect to find only one or two pages devoted to the diabolical duo. I recently found (and read) a collection of the comic and the humor palled by the third story.

The art was as good as Spy Vs. Spy ever is - there's a lot to be said for the way that Antonio Prohias manages to ignore and subvert perspective and composition. He can cram an awful lot of information into a single, simple panel and this book may be more useful as reference than as entertainment because of Prohias's impressive command of the page.

I'll probably never read this book again. I didn't enjoy it, it wasn't fun, and I found myself getting angry at the book really quickly. But I've already used it once as a sort of tutorial on black-on-black inking and I'm sure I'm going to end up doing so again.

     - Alli

Prohias, Antonio. Spy Vs. Spy: Casebook of Craziness. Fall River Press. New York: New York. 2014.

Toxic masculinity and bitchin tech

One of the reasons I love Cracked.Com is that it's introduced me to a bunch of my favorite authors. Another reason is because those authors are ridiculously cool, aware people. Mad still feels like a boy's club, it's full of jokes made at the expense of women, it plays into stereotypes, and is grounded in bathroom humor. Cracked is way more inclusive while still being grounded in bathroom humor.

So I was delighted, but not surprised, that David Wong's new book Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits is a violent, funny, fart-filled romp that also offers up biting commentary about the alpha-male culture and the dangers of unlimited capitalism.

Now, that might sound like the kind of thing that would make a book be heavy and serious and mournful. It's not.

In addition to the great main plot (full of over-the-top characters and a stinky cat) there are wonderful side characters who are handled with an amount of care and sensitivity that is remarkable while still allowing them to be funny. A butler is still lower class than his employers but he approaches his position with reason, patience, and overwhelmingly impressive sandwich-making skills (as well as a willingness to impart wisdom and snark to the higher-ups in his life, provided they still treat him with the respect that a person deserves). There's an aging sex-worker in the story who isn't treated as trash, who isn't mocked (by the author, at least) for her position. That's fucking remarkable. I love that the humor and sympathy in this book are not only present, but also make a point of always punching up - the kinds of people who get shit on in the real world all the time are respected as important, autonomous human beings deserving of respect and dignity.

And there's more coming! Which is excellent - I love Wong's writing. He's funny and dark and deep and kind and I want to read a lot more from him, so I'm stoked that we're going to not only be getting more from the Futuristic Violence universe but the John Dies at the End world as well.

Looking forward to it, Mr. Wong. Thanks a bunch.

     - Alli

Wong, David. Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits. Thomas Dunne Books.
     New York: New York. 2015.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Being won over

I was really lukewarm on Siddhartha but I think I started to "get" Hesse in my reading of Demian. That novel feels less awkward and more deep - Siddhartha is your classical young man on a journey to enlightenment whereas Demian is a story about a young man whose questions don't really find answers but only more questions.

The characters and their dramas are a lot more digestible too. I mean, that doesn't mean you process their actions or motives in every case but Demian has actions that hit closer to the human and home feelings than Siddhartha's monks and hedonists. It's easier to relate to a confused student than it is to a boy who leaves his father's home to wander the wilderness even if both boys are searching for meaning.

The book is pleasantly creepy too - all those big, sweet, metaphysical dreams of the world and sparrowhawks that fill up the background make the foreground of normal life seem sinister and confusing. Which normal life is! Hesse does a great job of attempting to explain the separation between people, the spaces they can't speak to fill, and appreciating the simplicity of the mundane.

I think what I liked best about this book is that no one really knows what's going on and everyone is a mess. There are no answers, only searching, and I think that's pretty true of the real world as well.

     - Alli

Hesse, Herman. Demian. Bantam Classics. New York: New York. 1960. (1919).

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I cry candy

For months now I've had family and friends tell me how much they enjoyed Inside Out and telling me that I should see it. I finally got the opportunity to in a hotel room at three in the morning. Everyone else who was watching drifted off to sleep but I had to see how it ended, and basically it ended with me trying not to cry loud enough to wake up everyone else in the room.

The movie gets that the inside of a person's head is messy. None of the systems communicate well, one emotion tries to dominate and fails, memories fade and are lost, things that you cared about go missing. The human mind is a confusing place that wants to think of itself as clean and simple and ordered but can't pull it off.

Of course Sadness was my favorite character. I get sadness. I get how important it is to be sad sometimes but I like the message that balance is important. You can't be happy all the time, obviously, but being sad (or disgusted, angry, or afraid) all the time is no better. And I like that the movie's main message is to ask for help. If you're losing your emotions, if you don't feel the things you used to, if you're scared and angry and can't feel joy there is a problem and it's completely acceptable to tell other people what you're feeling.

Good job Disney and Pixar, you've made another brilliant movie.

     - Alli

Friday, September 18, 2015

The shark and the whale going for a ride

On a rainy winter evening in the winter of 2004 I was supposed to see Hunter S. Thompson. I was a college journalist having a great time yelling about politics and writing music reviews and my editor and I were going to line up and wait for a glimpse of the gonzo glory that so fascinated and repelled us. But it didn't happen. Thompson was ill and didn't end up finishing the signing event. A few months later he was dead.

I didn't want to read Fear and Loathing after that. I didn't want to see the movie. I didn't want to know any more for a long time, because what I knew was that Thompson's life had burnt him and he'd shared that burning with his readers.

But it's been eleven years now and I was feeling a little less raw so I just bought the fucking thing and dedicated a couple of hours to getting it in my system.

On the one hand I'm still raw. Thompson was a goddamned gift and I'm sad that he's gone. On the other hand reading what he wrote is the best way to appreciate that gift because his writing is full of hilarity and wonder and confusion and so much life that it makes your eyes ache as they move over the pages.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a great way to kill an afternoon feeling crazy and vibrant. It's brimming with rancid delight that seeps into you and jerks a grin onto your face. It's sparse while still being overwhelming, and funny on every single page.

I don't know how to recommend this book, or who should read it, or how to even approach explaining it. I'll just say that it felt good reading it.

     - Alli

Thompson, Hunter S.. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the
     American Dream
. Vintage Books. New York: New York. 1998. (1971)

Monday, September 7, 2015

Timing is a bitch

Do you ever feel really different from one reading to the next? Sometimes I am bored as fuck reading a book in November but that same book will hit me really hard six months later. Maybe it had something to do with the edition instead of the timing, but on my most recent reading of The Crow I basically cried through the entire book.

Maybe I was just in a rough mood, I don't know, but it hit me hard this time around. If you're not familiar with The Crow beyond knowing it's the gothy movie that killed Brandon Lee let me start by saying that it's a bit more involved than pop culture makes it out to be.

It's a beautifully illustrated, violent, aggressive, truly depressed story about a murdered man coming to avenge the death and gang rape of his fiancee. The relationship between Shelly and Eric is shown in several stages, all of which suggest that they were honestly and deeply in love, and the images of this deep, sweet relationship are carefully intercut with images of a morphine addict raping Shelly's corpse and Eric literally slashing himself to pieces because he allowed her to be harmed (and horrible things ad nauseam).

Anyway, the book isn't perfect. Shelly is fairly dehumanized and I will never not have a problem with the fact that she is almost unrecognizable from panel to panel. There are just tons of allusions and snippets of poetry tossed in to the point that Eric is essentially incomprehensible as the Crow. T-Bird's gang makes no sense, the mythology of the whole story is confusing, the police department is oddly structured - really there aren't many points on which The Crow is coherent, but that doesn't do a damn thing to make the book less impacting.

It's raw, is what all these criticisms come down to. The Crow is a bundle of pain that was turned into a book that you can hold in your hands. J. O'Barr shared his suffering with us in one of the best examples I've ever seen of translating emotion into art. And for that it's fantastic.

     - Alli

O'Barr, J. The Crow. Kitchen Sink Press. Northampton: Massachusetts. 1994. (1981).

Say what you mean.

I'm not a total Pollyanna. I want you to know that. I'm not really even a little bit of a Pollyanna - I recently had someone tell me I'm one of the most negative people he knows, which I've chosen to take as an extremely backhanded compliment because fuck that dude, but for all of that I really wanted Angle of Repose to have something of a happy ending.

I mean, I know the chances of that happening with a Pulitzer Prize winning novel are pretty damned low but it's not impossible. Look at Maus - that book is depressing as fuck but still manages to be hopeful. Stegner doesn't even give us hope, he gives us hope for hope, which feels a little bit like getting cheated after investing as much into the characters as he does.

That's kind of the reason that the novel is amazing - I honestly give a shit about pretty much everyone who Stegner introduces us to. I feel sympathy for them, I want them to have good lives and happiness and easy summer mornings and instead Stegner just keeps kicking his audience in the balls by denying his characters the easy life that would cheapen their stories.

It was easy to sink into this story, easy to read through Lyman Ward's frustration and want to cuddle and protect him the way he wanted to cuddle and protect the people whose lives he was exploring. It's hard to take a lot of the novel seriously, though. Shelly Rasmussen, the braless hippie who so offends Lyman's delicate sensibilities, is probably the rightest character in the story. Everyone else gets torn to pieces by their hangups, Shelly is the only one questioning if accepting those hangups is wise. Shelly gets shit on a lot by Lyman but I think Stegner likes her better than his grouchy narrator lets on - Stenger isn't as much a dinosaur as Lyman, and Lyman isn't as much a gargoyle as he pretends. The modern characters in this historical novel are as fraught with pretending as their predecessors and that seems to be the major message here - it's better to be honest than to be miserable.

Stegner, Wallace. Angle of Repose. Penguin Publishing. New York: New York. 1992. (1971).

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Soothingly mature

Okay. I think I get it now.

A lot of the Dickens I've read in the last year is of the mawkish, syrup-sweet variety that's basically impossible to read with a straight face. It's been a long time since I've read Hard Times and a longer time since I've read A Tale of Two Cities so I haven't seen the good side of Dickens in a while. But David Copperfield fixed that.

This is a wonderful coming-of-age story, and it's full of love and loss and realistic pain that reaches out and touches the reader. It has none of the over-the-top picturesqueness of The Old Curiosity Shop and isn't quite as focused on plucky, stupid, stolid women as Bleak House or Little Dorrit. David Copperfield is full of characters who ring true, who make mistakes that are honest and avoidable and frustrating instead of, say blindly perusing a law suit for decades or protecting a grandfather who relentlessly gambles away his savings. The characters in this story made me groan in sympathy at their misfortunes and mistakes instead of making me bang my head on my desk out of frustration with their plain masochism and inability to learn from experience.

What a relief!

And that's what I get, that's what I needed reminding of. Dickens isn't just about grimy descriptions of London or hilarious character names or relentless mockery of the Victorian educational system (though, yes, that gets its share of poking here too) - Dickens also wrote about people who were vulnerable and weak and depended on the kindness of others and were sometimes hurt by that. Dickens cared deeply about children and the future and the damaged world he was living in and Dickens wanted to make that world a better place. And he did - writing about what he wrote about, even if it included the ridiculous Little Nell and a whole bevy of insipid pedestal-standing straw-women, taught his readers to keep an eye out for the filth they had been blind to and to try to be kind where they could.

And the message still stands - clearer in David Copperfield than in any of his other books that I've read - that it's up to those who have the liberty to be kind, generous, and patient to be kind, generous, and patient with everyone they can.

     - Alli

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Modern Library Classics. New York: New York.
     2000. (1849-50).

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The ethics of hacking

After my adventures with reading real stories from World War II (Going Solo and Maus) I decided that I needed to participate in some fictional interaction with the war to end all wars. I know I probably should have looked into more memoirs and histories and soberly and seriously reflected on man's inhumanity to man and all that jazz, but I was just emotionally exhausted and needed some unambiguously good guys to kick ass so I reread Cryptonomicon. It doesn't hurt that the fictional WWII good guys are geeks, and that the fictional modern good guys are focusing on preventing future holocausts either when it comes to feeling better about reading some heavy shit. I'm not sure how much of that last sentence made sense, so I'll just say I like geeks and am very glad that many varieties of geek seem to give a shit about the world.

Which is kind of the defining geek characteristic that's explored through a number of different characters in Cryptonomicon. Geeks are people who notice something wrong in the world (whether it's issues of InfoSec protocols, a poorly programmed operating system, free speech, or the shaky physics of Iron Man) and won't shut up about it until it's fixed, and frequently won't shut up about it until they do the fixing themselves.

Cryptonomicon is a book that it - unsurprisingly - largely about problems of privacy. Stephenson does a really fantastic job of exploring what a dual-edged sword privacy can be; half of his characters are invested in code breaking for what's basically the good of the entire world but who all recognize the issue of applying these same techniques to individuals. The book makes its case for strong crypto but also makes the argument that it's wrong that individuals have to rely on strong crypto or be subject to the same treatment as, say, Nazi communications were in 1940. I'm not going to lie, there's some cognitive dissonance in that. There is a character who cheerfully discards the idea that gentlemen shouldn't read one another's mail because reading each other's mail is how the Allies won the war; he's presented as repugnant, and the idea that a government would examine its citizens private communications is repugnant (and, unfortunately, just the world we live in now), but the point seems to be that cracking is a last resort and the sorts of people who are GOOD at cryptography should keep in mind that they are handling the weapon that could next be turned against themselves.

Which makes it a really good thing that Stephenson (Stephenson in particular, not that anyone else could have done it, but that his name is attached to it as a geek himself and as the author of one of the first major books about web culture) wrote this book. Stephenson is one of the five authors who the majority of my tech friends always bring up (Gibson, Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury are the others) as their favorite authors. The InfoSec crew I hang out with have almost all read the tremendous brick that is Cryptonomicon even if they aren't really into reading. It's one of those books that's talked about using the same reverent tones that Christians use when talking about the Bible - it's a must-read, a guiding star, a moral code, an inspiration, and wonderful entertainment to everyone who's ever looked at a computer and seen something wrong that they must make right.

Anyway I enjoy the hell out of it every time I read it and every time I read it it makes me think very seriously about the questions currently surrounding privacy, intellectual property, liberty, free speech, and generally not living in a police state. It's not really what you could call an easy read, it's got some not-too-complicated but decidedly tedious discussions of math, crypto, and random numbers scattered throughout. But those things are all worth reading because it makes you want to be better at the things under discussion (and it's not like it's something as detailed, complicated, and terrifying as the orbital mechanics lectures in Anathem).

So if you're even slightly inclined to check out this odd book about computer geeks, please do. If you're a computer geek who wants to consider yourself a hacker it's almost a moral imperative that you read this book. But don't read it because of that - read it because it's fun.

     - Alli

Stephenson, Neal. Cryptonomicon. Avon Fiction. New York: New York. 2002. (1999).

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Mourning and laughter are both valuable

I decided I wanted to cry basically forever so I sat down and reread Maus this weekend.

Look, I know I harp on a lot about comic books but Maus may be objectively the best comic book ever made. It's Art Spiegelman's masterpiece in which he tells the story of his father's experience of the holocaust. Spiegelman does this deftly and touchingly, interweaving his own experience of telling the tale and arguments with his father into the narrative of the horrors experienced by one family during the worst period in human history.

It's the first graphic novel to have ever won a Pulitzer Prize. Maus is the reason I want to make comic books. It's the model that all other serious biographical comics have followed since because it (if it didn't create the genre) tells its story with such honesty and delicacy that NOT attempting to live up to that standard is frankly not acceptable. And in spite of the fact that it's a graphic novel that deals heavily with suicide, digs into the author's strained relationship with his father, and is about the holocaust and literally illustrates cute animals hanging in concentration camps, Maus is often very light and sweet and funny. The book focuses on the human elements of tremendous tragedy, the pettiness that mutual sufferers can exhibit toward one another, the joy found in small respites from torture, the kindness of strangers - all of these things are put on display frequently because they not only make the painful story more bearable, they're what makes the story important. We see silly exchanges between cousins and love affairs and old jokes and goofy misunderstandings because the lighten up a heavy load but they also remind us that this, the simple contact of humans and their relationships, is what was being exterminated.

Maus is painful to read but it's important to read. In a world full of memoirs of pain and biographies of suffering it's vital that the memory of laughter not be lost, because we need those memories to act as signposts to prevent such a terrible loss from ever happening again.

     - Alli

Spiegelman, Art. Maus. Pantheon Books. New York: New York. 1997. (1973, 1986).

Going home is the best part of Going Solo

You can't understand how wonderful a book like Matilda is unless you were a lonely, bright child with very few friends. I mean everyone can appreciate that it's a sweet, cute story about success and beating the odds and tricking the corrupt leader, but until you've set aside your worn copy and stared so HARD at a pencil, struggling to see if you just might be magic like Matilda, then picked up the book again (disappointed in yourself but happy to keep reading and quietly muttering "it's okay, it's just a story") you can't understand how great the book is. It makes me question physics. As an adult. Who is pretty fucking into physics. Because maybe someday I'll feel those little hands pushing out of my eyes and making the world come to life for me. Maybe. Not likely, though.

Anyway, Matilda is the first Roald Dahl book I ever read. I've also happily consumed stories about Willy Wonka and a certain Big Friendly Giant. There were others, I'm sure (I know I at least glanced through The Twits and hated it at 10, but that was the same day my mother had a heart attack so maybe I just wasn't in the mood for a story). I probably should have read Boy before Going Solo, but Going Solo was the book I had so it's what I read.

Roald Dahl makes me feel pretty useless. In fact I'm pretty sure that most RAF pilots make most people feel pretty useless. Especially if they were WWII fighter pilots, because I try to make a difference in the world but I've never literally stopped Nazis from killing people. Which is really the meat of Going Solo. There are quite a few amusing anecdotes that introduce us to the young Dahl in the beginning of the book but by the halfway point you are solid into Nazi fighting. And getting into Nazi fighting actually makes the memoir more pleasant - the amusing little anecdotes have a lot to do with imperialism and covering murder, so it makes the people under discussion a little hard to like.

Dahl comes up looking pretty good through most of the story, and like a prince at the end. Of course it's his book and he was a tremendously talented writer, but it's very much the story of a young man out of this depth who is frustrated and terrified by the world around him and trying to muddle through anyway. His affable voice and self deprecation through the nightmarish things he lived through are bracing and sad at the same time. The final chapter, his homecoming and reunion with his worried mother, was heart-wrenching and is what really made me glad to have read this odd little book.

     - Alli

Dahl, Roald. Going Solo. Puffin Books. New York: New York. 1999. (1986).

OMFG this could change everything

Guys. Guys. You guys. Holy shit. I'm so fucking stoked.

Joe Hill touches on the Kingiverse. Joe Hill mentions Pennywise and Midworld and holy shit are you fucking kidding the Treehouse of the Mind is in the same universe as Derry? That makes so much sense on so many levels but brings up just a ton of questions. Hill and King are very different writers and as much as I love King (I really do, he's wonderful and he's written books that have become such good friends over the years) I'm feeling really, really into Hill. But does Hill even want to go there? Was this just a gimme to people who are reading because they're fans of his dad but maybe not all that into him? I really hope not. I hope Hill gets a chance to expand this universe with his own twisted imprint and make it just all kinds of awesome.

Really. Please, please, please, it's so fucking good!

Anyway. NOS4A2 kind of fucking rules. I kept being surprised by this book in just the best ways - as I thought I was closing in on the ending (it seemed like I'd read through the right amount of action to be moving into a final act) I realized that I was only about halfway through the book. There was a SHITLOAD more where that came from and I was thrilled. Characters kept doing and being so much more than I had anticipated, and Hill wasn't scared to be cruel to his readers. NOS4A2 kept slamming that fact home to me - this isn't some kind of post-close-encounters-Spielberg storyteller where the kids are always alright, this is a dude whose favorite movie is Jaws and you know he loves it when the Kintner kid gets eaten. This book is visceral in that it's full of viscera - guts and gore slide and explode all over the place and make you giddy and sick as a reader. It's good shit.

I really want to tell you A LOT of what happened, I want to go over the story in depth, but the book feels a little too new to comfortably dig deeply into. Suffice it to say that Hill does an admirable job of exploring nontraditional families and that I was startled and pleased to read a horror novel that passes the Bechdel test so many times over. And I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that the Hilliverse leaves doors open to the Kingiverse and vice versa - both men are tremendously talented and engaging writers and I think it would be delightful to someday read their stories interacting with one another.

     - Alli

Hill, Joe. NOS4A2. William Morrow. New York: New York. 2013.

July Book Roundup

Friday, August 14, 2015

Cultural criticism

There's something to be said for being of a generation that has birthed the connoisseurship of irony. It made it a little easier for me to read Tabloid Culture, at any rate. It's a book that's deeply engaged in criticizing powerful institutions for their criticism of populist media, but it does so in a remarkably sanctimonious and impenetrably academic style. I'm a smart lady, and I've done my time as an academic, but I had a lot of trouble making the connections that Kevin Glynn strives to make and I struggled to make myself give a shit about what Baudrillard would have to say about Maury Povitch.

Which is not to say that Tabloid Culture is unreadable or worthless or not totally engaging in a lot of ways. It's just, you know, kind of snooty about it, which is to be expected in what started as a dissertation written for Duke University.

The book talks a lot about postmodernism and the fact that even postmodernist thinkers can't agree on what postmodernism is, but I'm guessing that that whole argument exploded at some point in the early 2000s, before cell phones had cameras on them and before the question of "who watches the watchmen?" had been resoundingly answered with "everyone." It's fascinating to look at a book on media that essentially predates the internet (at least the modern internet) and talks about the democratizing influences and postmodernist flavor of reality TV before Survivor first hit US airwaves. I want to know what Glynn thinks of the Kardashians. I want to hear Glynn talk about Ferguson. I kept reading this book and page by page thinking "wow, the shit that's been going on in the last fifteen years must have blown this guy's mind." And I probably could learn what he thinks about a lot of those things, but I don't feel like going to New Zealand for a seminar would be worth it.

I read this book because I spent a long time as a journalism major and because it seemed interesting and kitschy. It looked like a time capsule, and that's exactly what it was. Glynn had a lot of very insightful things to say about a lot of media that had died off. He was also pretty significantly ahead of the curve on discussion of things like white fragility and trans issues, though his discussions of these topics also date the book (for instance it's pretty clear that the self-selected pronouns issue wasn't as settled in 2000 as it is today). Sometimes I found myself nodding along and thinking "yes, this is still relevant today, this is important, this is USEFUL" and then I would get to a page that went in-depth about the disassociation of the bodies of network broadcasters and realized again and again that the world has changed. Fifteen years has been enough to completely transform our media landscape, for better and for worse, and as much as I enjoyed (and was frustrated by, and was bored by) reading Tabloid Culture it's written for a world that doesn't exist anymore. Still. If I gave stars for my reviews this fascinating book would sit at four out of five. Check your local guide for showtimes.

     - Alli

Glynn, Kevin. Tabloid Culture: Trash Taste, Popular Power, and the Transformation of 
     American Television. Duke University Press. Durham: North Carolina. 2000.

Dude, look at that fucking TITLE. If you're in college and you're ever stuck for a title on your paper this is the PERFECT, PROTOTYPICAL format. Take a two-word title and follow it with a subhead that has three ideas, the first two of which are in some way repetitive (alliteration or rhyme) and the third of which breaks pattern. So, for example:

Walk Hard: Short Steps, Heavy Hearts, and Community Healing in Remembrance Walks.
Heavy Petting: Friendly Felines, Doting Dogs, and the Spread of Domestically Hosted Parasites.
Tour Talk: Lies, Sighs, and the Truth about Groupies.

Pro-tip: Don't fuck with this style too much. I once called a paper "Faceted Franklin: Four Faces Formulated for Founding a Functional Federation" to snark at the idea of formulaic title construction and got called on it by my professor. The only marks I lost on that paper were for the snarky title. Academia wants what academia wants.

I've got a fever...

That can only be cured by reading more about nightmarish infectious diseases.

I'm not good at science. Well, I'm good at some parts of science like attempting to maintain objectivity when discussing the physical universe, respecting well-constructed studies over anecdotal evidence, and changing my mind when I'm presented with solid evidence that contradicts my previous knowledge, but the actual nitty-gritty math and numbers part is what I'm bad at (though now that I've discovered Stats with Cats that may change) and that makes it difficult for me to study science the way that I would like to.

The frustrating part about not knowing a ton about the hard sciences is that it's hard to get into the hard sciences without running into some very, very shitty (and hardly readable) science. After reading The Hot Zone this weekend I ended up on Amazon looking for more books about virology (probably my favorite branch of bio science) and ended up getting lots of recommendations for books that examine the link between vaccines and autism. Fuck. That's not what I'm looking for AT ALL. I want more stories about virus hunting, examinations of infection rates, and explorations of all the creepy crawlies that fill up the invisible world. Basically I want another fifty books like The Hot Zone, because goddamn is that a good book.

I know I read at least part of this book in high school. I vividly remember sitting in the school library and reading about Major Nancy Jaxx's highly unusual (and ill-advised) method of opening a can of green beans. But I'm not sure I read much beyond that because I had no recollection of the rest of the events of the book and considering what happens in the rest of the story I'm pretty sure I'd remember it. It's scary as fuck.

I kept reading passages out loud to my husband as we sat on the patio until 4AM, him messing around on the computer and me being alternately fascinated and repulsed by Preston's gripping storytelling and arresting prose. Honestly reading anything about Ebola is interesting but the way that Preston was able to get the facts from his correspondents and weave them into something that was more of a thriller than an after-action report was mind-boggling. He did a fantastic job of bringing bio-hazard containment to life and making it pulse-poundingly exciting (something that I'm positive many bio-hazard containment specialists find incredible).

But. Um. Don't read this book if you're squeamish. About pretty much anything. Aside from the discussion of a highly transmissible hemorrhagic fever and all the associated nastiness there's also a lot of discussion (though not many descriptions) of trapping, housing, and euthanizing monkeys for medical research that I'm sure will make this book unreadable for a lot of people (though, hey, bonus, because of the events in the book the US made its monkey importation and housing standards much more strict which means life got a lot better for a lot of monkeys). And if you are at all microphobic DO NOT READ THIS BOOK. Seriously. Do Not. I've got a healthy fear/respect for germs and yes everyone should get vaccinated, wash their hands frequently during cold and flu season, and stay away from potentially rabid animals, and observe good sterile procedures for stuff like tattoos and handling open wounds, but if you're the kind of person who needs to wash your hands once an hour this book is going to scare the living shit out of you in a potentially very literal way. Which is why I like it, but why you probably won't.

Anyway, I had fun with The Hot Zone. You might too, if it doesn't give you the screaming mimis.

     - Alli

Preston, Richard. The Hot Zone. Anchor Books. New York: New York. 1995. (1994).

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Shadow knows

While my husband and I were working on my car last weekend I found myself with some downtime, filthy hands, and nothing to do. Since the garage is where my book case lives I decided to tidy up my grubby mitts and sink into an easy read while I was waiting for parts to arrive.

Long story short I ended up spending a pretty significant chunk of time reading American Gods instead of finishing my engine.

This really is a delightful book. It's a quick read but the world is so full of depth and history and mystery that it feels like you're living the same time as the characters - only a couple hours pass in real life but you end up aging yourself months every time you read this story. It's so whole, so full, that you have to pull back from your perceptions and wonder about the world anew every time you pick it up.

Shadow is such a great entry into this world. He's a perfect blank in so many ways, which means you get to look through his eyes and feel his confusion and feel at home in the story because he's the main character and he's even more lost than you are. And he's sweet. And hurt. And sad. I love reading Shadow because he takes so long to get to know but once you know him you can't help but admire and pity him. He doesn't know what's going on, he doesn't know his place in the world; he's just a shadow looking for substance.

Anyway, if you're into fantasy, mythology, contemporary American stories, or just looking for some wonder in the world American Gods is a good place to find all of those things.

     - Alli

Gaiman, Neil. American Gods. Harper Torch. New York: New York. 2002. (2001).

Enjoying fragments over finish

I am well aware of the fact that I'm a grumpy motherfucker. I'm pretty well-known among my group of friends (yes, I do actually have those!) as the one who can gripe about any given subject for half an hour at a time at the drop of a hat. I am the epitome of the "feminist buzzkill" stereotype.

And I love it.

So, anyway, Wieland is another one of those books written in the eighteenth century where the story basically wouldn't happen if people weren't so focused on controlling women and their sexuality. Which made me grumpy for most of the time I was reading it, of course.

When I first read (most) of this book it was for my 400 level Early American Lit class in college. We didn't have to read the Memoirs chunk at the end of the book but the longer novel (sometimes described as the first Great American Novel) was mandatory reading. When I started rereading the book I realized that I remembered essentially nothing about it at all except that the dude who had presented on it at the end of the quarter gave his presentation as a puppet show, which seemed funny at first and quickly became strained. And I seem to remember that he got expelled for plagiarism, so fuck him anyway. But I digress.

The story is narrated by Clara who, SPOILERS, is left alone in the world after her brother goes crazy and murders his wife and children because this random dude, Carwin, who happens to be a ventriloquist, accidentally convinces Wieland (the brother) that he's hearing the voice of God.

A lot of the drama that occurs in the story is as a result of Clara having to try to resurrect her reputation after Carwin pretends to have seduced her. Wieland might not have had an opportunity to kill just freaking everyone if Clara hadn't had to go rabbiting after Pleyel, who might have stayed behind and been a defender of the wife and kids (who are such unnecessary acted-upon-but-never-acting characters that they may as well not have names (though the wife's name is Catherine and the murdered lodger who is also in this story for some reason is Louisa)).

Clara almost gets killed at the end because she was misinformed about how bugshit insane her brother has gone - seems like some kindly males wanted to protect their delicate weeping flower from the knowledge that a maniac was attempting to murder her. Of course when she becomes aware of that fact she's suicidal anyway because what even is the point of living unless it's for the love of Pleyel who doesn't respect her at this juncture because she is such a potentially fallen woman, or the brother she serves as a substitute mother to, or the sister-in-law who is such a perfect model of femininity that I'm not actually sure she speaks a single line or does anything other than literally sit and look pretty in the book, or the nieces and/or nephews who act as good surrogate children and allow Clara to display her maternal instincts without the complication of her ever having touched a penis to infringe on her innocence and trustworthiness as a narrator? Why would Clara even want to exist if she couldn't be a model for or learning from a model of some variety of idealized femininity, right?

But that's okay. Clara gets a happy ending because Pleyel forgives her once he's given proof from someone with a reliable penis that Clara isn't a whore (wouldn't do to believe Clara herself, of course), and Pleyel's wife, whom he has married after deciding Clara was a whore, conveniently dies young enough that Pleyel is still an attractive marriage prospect. Yay.

But that wasn't even the woman whose sexuality I was talking about controlling! Funnily enough if Judith, Clara's housemaid, hadn't had to hide her affair with Carwin pretty much nothing in the story would have happened. Everyone would have known who Carwin was and he wouldn't have been able to get away with sneaking and tricking and hiding in closets so Pleyel never would have doubted Clara, the two of them would have been around to call for help or prevent Wieland from killing his family, and Clara wouldn't have ended up writhing with guilt over feelings of self-preservation when facing down her criminally insane brother.

But, you know, you can't let the maids hand out "buttermilk" to just anyone. What would the neighbors think?

The Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist are a bit more interesting to me and less irritating than Wieland. There's no gendered element of innocence in Carwin, he's just young and stupid and has too much talent and trust for his own good. The story of Carwin doesn't finish and you sort of have to piece it together from passing references in Wieland and fill in the gaps with your imagination and everything seems to indicate that Carwin's self-satisfaction combined with the arrogance of youth came together to fuck up his life.

And that's the kind of story I can get behind - it's got a great element of exceptionalism thwarted by tripping on straws. Carwin wasn't quite enough to offset Wieland for me, but I had a much better time reading it than I had reading the longer work.


Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist. Penguin Classics.
     New York: New York. 1991. (1771).

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sequels shouldn't have sucked

Okay, I'm not going to lie, I haven't seen MIB III and I hear that it doesn't suck but MIB II sucked enough that I can't quite bring myself to watch it. But here's the thing: they waited too long to make a shitty sequel and then waited WAY too long to make a non-shitty sequel. Men in Black came out five years before MIB II. There was then a ten-year gap between the second and the third film. The two good movies in this series are fifteen years apart and (and holy shit, Men in Black films have been made in every one of the last three decades, what the fuck is wrong with us that we're taking so long to do this?) that's too long to hold on to a core audience.

Men in Black is an immensely diverting movie. It's goofy fun with silly aliens and a ridiculously accelerated plot and cool montages involving identity erasure and putting on suits. But it also does a great job of building up an easy-to-swallow world that's full of fascinating possibilities.

Tolkein took thousands of pages to build a world we all want to hang out in. Herbert took thousands of pages. The Star Trek universe has been built up for half a century. Men in Black built the universe in just under two hours and we still haven't even scratched the surface of the fun that could be had there. (This is, of course, discussing only the cinematic universe. I'm completely aware that the comics have been doing it for a long time but the approach to the content and morality of the comics makes the print and cinematic universes totally different canons).

So I watched Men in Black tonight and I had fun with it. I really appreciated the absurd physical comedy Vincent D'Onofrio put into his performance. It's entertaining as shit to watch Will Smith butt heads with Tommy Lee Jones and to watch them both be different kinds of awesome. There are cool aliens and a kitty and nice explosions and pretty much everything about the movie is entertaining - I just wish there had been a better follow-up to a movie that had so much potential.

     - Alli

Now you see it, now you don't

So the only reason I got RX: A Tale of Electronegativity was because I felt guilty reading Robert Brockway's new novel, The Unnoticeables, without having read his first novel; I'd been meaning to read RX eventually anyway and then there was Amazon's Prime Day and Brockway was pushing his new book on Cracked and long story short suddenly I had a whole bunch of new books. I read RX first because it felt right, and I'm glad that I did - I liked that book and had fun with it, but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I did The Unnoticeables and I'm super glad that I saved the best for last.

The Unnoticeables is not a story, like RX, that takes place in a strange and distant future. It takes place here, now, and forty years ago. It's full of scenes I recognize and faceless horrors that are strikingly familiar. Though maybe that's because I live in LA and it's not really a stretch to believe that minor celebrities here are blank-eyed monsters who are out to get you.

But I don't want to get into spoiler territory. So let's talk big picture: it is vitally important that you have a decent stock of beer handy when you're reading this book. You will want beer frequently and if you have to stop and get some you'll be irritated. You'll probably also want cigarettes, if you smoke, and at least four hours worth of poorly-produced punk lined up on your playlist (regardless of whether or not you smoke). Do not, under any circumstances, watch Saved by the Bell for at least a week before or after reading The Unnoticeables. Keep a lighter in your pocket at all times (also regardless of whether or not you smoke).

The book is a quick read, the story is creepily plausible while still being fantastic, and the world it occupies is filthy and bright and homey all at once. You'll be guided through the plot by two fascinating people with lots of problems and very little hope but enough gumption and resignation to be extremely likeable protagonists. Did I mention that the book is funny? Because it is. It's not always the kind of funny that makes you sick, usually it's the kind of funny that makes you queasy, but it's hard to be unamused even as you're also horrified. Totally worthwhile, basically, is what I have to say about The Unnoticeables.

Brockway, Robert. The Unnoticeables. TOR Books. New York: New York. 2015.