Saturday, December 31, 2016

Book Wrap-Ups 2016

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

    - 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!

     - 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.

     - 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.

     - 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?"

     - Alli

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


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.

     - Alli

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

Monday, December 19, 2016

Tonal dissonance and sexist bull

Look, I don't hate horror comics, okay? I read through all of Wes Craven's Coming of Rage as floppies this year and enjoyed the hell out of all the blood and guts and gore, The Darkness is the one fucking thing that makes me want to play video games, and any of Stephen King's horror/novel crossover books like The Cycle of the Werewolf are the kind of shit that makes me get up in the morning.

I am also, just by pure happenstance and a long history as a goth kid, not totally ignorant about various forms of witchcraft, including modern branches like LaVeyan Satanism, Theistic Satanism, and Wicca as well as older forms of Paganism, Shamanism, and herbal medicine that are considered witchcraft these days.

AND I have tons of fond memories of reading Archie Comics as a kid and was totally the nerd who had to be home for TGIF to watch Sabrina the Teenage Witch every week.

With those things in mind (that I like horror comics, am kind of into witchcraft, and am familiar with the canon of the universe) The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is shit.

Look pals, just because you CAN grimdark something doesn't mean that you SHOULD. Instead of the light-hearted buffoonery and issue-of-the-week lessons of the original comics and various TV iterations THIS version of Sabrina features the affable Aunts Hilda and Zelda as gluttonous cannibals. In one case a totally harmless woman has her daughter taken from her, is driven insane and institutionalized, and then has her sanity restored so she can suffer more. (SPOILERS) Harvey's mother, driven mad by his death, brutally murders her husband as he tries to protect her. (/Spoilers)

I'm just going to take a second to point out that while witches were frequently accused of human sacrifice and cannibalism it isn't actually something we see much in the European history of witchcraft. Also absent from European witchcraft traditions: the need for a woman to protect her virginity in order to become a witch. That's getting into some gross sexist-as-fuck Gardner shit which, A) doesn't make sense if Hilda and Zelda did the same thing and are supposed to be centuries old and, B) SHOULDN'T SHOW UP IN A COMIC BOOK ABOUT A FUCKING MINOR. (Because, yes, kindly dumbbell jock Harvey is pressuring Sabrina into sex and she can't have sex with him before her sixteenth birthday and still be a witch because what the actual fuck.)

I've seen some commentary about the fact that this book allows women to exist without the need for men as a woo-girl-power kind of thing but that totally ignores the fact that men are also witches and seem to get their way more often (Sabrina's dad's illegal relationship with her mom, for instance) and are supposed to be the virgin servants of a distinctly masculine entity. Also how the hell does the virginity thing hold up - Edward Spellman had a relationship with Lady Satan (the actual FUCK.) before getting his rocks off with a mortal who both he and Lady Satan would eventually torture. Lady Satan also murders the kindly old drama teacher at Sabrina's high school so that she can fill in the position and fill out some decidedly cheescake-inspired suits. For a comic that is supposed to be about women and that some people are offering up as a vehicle for powerful female characters it sure does think of a lot of women as disposable.

What a fucking mess. I like comics but even the pacing of this whole thing feels off - the rising tension of each issue is predictable and tedious, the whole comes to an unsatisfying conclusion, character development is not even on the fucking radar - it's just untidy and the writing seems like it was hurriedly scribbled in the journal of a tween boy who wanted to show it to his friends so they could see how dark and twisted and TOTALLY MASCULINE I GET BONERS FOR HOT LADIES OKAY his mind is.

That's actually another thing I have beef with - one witchy-type article discussed the fact that witches are presented as ugly to match the ugliness of their deeds; that they don't need beauty because their power makes them above it. Well. Sure, that's true, at least of all the witches who are supposed to be over a certain age. Sabrina is cute and sexy by turns and Lady Satan is sexy as fuck, even if she does have to steal faces from mortals.

This book is Sabrina the Teenage Witch as scripted by Eli Roth. It's maybe good enough for a rejected GWAR album cover but probably not even that. You care about the people being ripped to shreds on a GWAR cover, their faces convey pain and horror. Not so here.

Which is the only negative thing that I have to say for the art. The faces aren't great at conveying emotion but I can't tell if that's a lack of practice or if poor Robert Hack just had too much going on in each page to convey the appropriate emotional response in every panel. Jumping from a discussion of physical intimacy and young love to the ritual preparations to slaughter a goat is enough to make any artist tear their hair out, let alone one who hadn't worked on ANY sequential books before this. Hack does a fantastic job with what he was given to work with, and I think the art is stellar. It's got a great vibe that instantly recalls Rosemary's Baby and tries to set a mood much better than any of the writing does. I think Hack is a great horror artist and I hope he continues working in horror comics, I just wish he'd had a writing team worthy of his talent and skill for his first run out of the gate.

(UGH, FUCK, I just realized that Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is the one adapting The Stand to comics and fuck half of me wants to read it and see how it went and the other half of me thinks that even the original novel did way too much of the "women are commodities in the apocalypse" bullshit that I feel like Aguirre-Sacasa would have just made worse. FUCK)

     - Alli

Aguirre-Sacasa, Roberto (Writer). Hack, Robert (Illustrator). The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
     Vol. 1: The Crucible
. Archie Comics. New York: New York. 2016

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Missing pieces

Funfact: If you ask me to buy you a comic book for Christmas I will read it before I give it to you. I don't make the rules, that's just how these things work, and I am aware that this is kind of a dick move.

I also sort of don't care that it's kind of a dick move because it gets me to read comics that I otherwise wouldn't and that can be tremendously edifying.

I don't know why my sister decided she wanted Andre the Giant: Closer to Heaven, but I must say it's a good choice. The Princess Bride - that's probably why she wants it: she's super into the book and the movie and recently read Cary Elwe's memoir so I'm sure that's a contributing factor.

As a comic it's a pretty decent offering. The art is compelling and dream-like, presenting you with images that communicate their subjects well but are always a bit off - whether it's glowing eyes or exaggerated features the characters don't fit into the real world, just the larger-than-life story of Andre the Giant's life. As a story it's a bit simple. The character of Andre narrates the man's life and does so in clear language that is touching and a bit predictable. There's real human tragedy and a great deal of success but I feel like it's lacking something important. There's a depth and emotion missing from the whole thing that I felt throughout.

Robin Rou____'s letter at the beginning of the graphic novel has this quintessence that's missing elsewhere. Her pain is real and her love and distance from her father is well communicated. I can't tell what she's got that the rest of the book doesn't - if it's honesty or bitterness or mourning - but I do feel like something's missing.

I probably never would have read this book on my own, and I'll probably never read it again, but it's a great offering for artists looking for inspiration and a decent choice as a book to read through at the library or comic shop.

     - Alli

Easton, Brandon and Denis Medri. Andre the Giant: Closer to Heaven. Lion Forge Comics.
     San Diego: California. 2015

Nonbinary representation before that was a thing


I think all of the years I spent not reading Ursula K. Le Guin can be attributed to the melodrama of the first few pages of The Left Hand of Darkness. Now that I've gotten over myself and just read the damn thing I'm probably going to spend a few years kicking myself for not getting into her work earlier.

Le Guin's writing has made my life better in a significant way even outside of the fact that she writes good books. Her exploration of gender at the heart of The Left Hand of Darkness is aggressively feminist for the time that the novel was written and even today could be seen as shocking with the realizations that a human who views sex and gender as a binary encounters in a nonbinary species.

I'm hella 1000% here for this shit.

Ai's difficulty in his relationships with the Gethenians is a beautiful exploration of the male gaze and how it colors literally everything in the world as Le Guin depicts it. Ai has trouble accepting nonbinary pronouns and presentations, he forces descriptions of behaviors as belonging to one human gender or another, unconsciously assigning positive traits to masculinity and negative traits to femininity. Ursula K. Le Guin went in with guns blazing and stripped the logic away from gendered assumptions and gave not one single fuck about making her work more palatable or less challenging.

And it's amazing - it's also amazing how far we've come since 1969 and how stuck we seem to be in some ways. Right now we have a whole vocabulary for gender fluidity and nonbinary spectra that simply didn't when Le Guin was writing TLHoD; but right now we still have issues of people seeing certain kinds of work or chores or colors or clothing as right for only one gender or another, completely ignoring that there might be something in-between.

Anyway, I loved the shit out of the book and it made me cry. A+, 10/10, would read again.

     - Alli

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. Ace Books. New York: New York. 2010. (1969).

Stupid mistakes with smart books

Reading a post-apocalyptic novel during the 2016 presidential election was probably not the greatest plan I've ever had. It stalled my reading in a pretty major way because it's hard to use a nightmarish corporatocracy as a means of escapism when you're attempting to escape a nightmarish corporatocracy.

It also might have been useful to know that The Year of the Flood is the second book of a trilogy before I started reading it, but I have a history of making that kind of mistake and try not to let it bother me.

What IS bothering me is that this is only the second novel I've read by Margaret Atwood. That is bad and wrong and something I will have to fix because, GOD DAMN, this woman can write.

The Year of the Flood is about a bunch of misfits who create an eco-based religion surviving the months and years before and after a bioengineered virus destroys most of the human race. It's scary and heady and is told through the eyes of incredibly well-constructed characters who are deeply satisfying in their richness and perspective.

The craft of this novel kept knocking my feet out from under me. Atwood had to sculpt a religion and its scriptures from scratch to match the world around it. I know it sounds easy when both things go together but how well it's done makes it very clear that there was a lot of work and effort put into the creation of the Gardeners and their hymnal and that work pays off. It's all tremendously believable and is far more enticing than a fictional cult should be.

I really, really want to read the other two books in the MaddAddam Trilogy, so I'm going to cut myself off before I start speculating about the world of the novel. I haven't read it yet and I don't want to spoil it for myself.


Atwood, Margaret. The Year of the Flood. Anchor Books. New York: New York. 2009.

Translating media in an okay way

I read The Count of Monte Cristo last year and happened to catch the 2002 film adaptation on TV earlier this month. I'd seen the movie in theaters but I'm pretty sure I hadn't seen it since, though I remember liking it when it came out. Now I'm less sure how I feel about it.

The book is incredibly long - probably too long. It wants to do a lot of things in a really brilliant way but has to settle for doing a couple of things brilliantly and the rest of the things in kind of shitty way. The Carnival section is much too long, there's a tremendous amount of backstory on several characters who don't actually have much of an impact on the novel, and the length of the damn thing eventually makes its protagonist less sympathetic than he would be in a shorter story.

The 2002 adaptation solves a lot of these problems by dropping all but a few characters and cutting the story down to a manageable size (and almost completely ditches Carnival, which is a SIGNIFICANT improvement). But it also loses a lot of what is interesting about the novel from a historical fiction perspective, to the point that the shifting political sands that define the book become a single-scene plot point at the beginning of the movie and basically never get mentioned again. It's a tradeoff that I think makes sense from a cinematic perspective but that does make the whole less compelling - perhaps a miniseries or a TV show would be a better way to make The Count of Monte Cristo come alive on a screen than a feature-length film was.

There are a couple of changes that I think were really well done, especially in respect to the choices and agency of Mercedes. I'm never ever going to bitch that we get a soppy happy ending if that soppy happy ending replaces a master-slave/owner-lover/whatever gross relationship. The ending of the book is pretty fucked up and I think the movie did a really decent job of keeping the fucked-up revenge fantasy without completely alienating the audience from Edmond's character by having him sail off into the sunset with a brainwashed slave-girl.

The movie is a fine way to spend a couple of hours, the book is a fine way to spend a couple of weeks. One is not a brilliant reflection of the other, but it's a totally decent translation to a totally different medium.

The wayback machine

Computers are fuckin' wild, friends. The changes in computing from thirty years ago to now are mind-boggling. It makes the 60-year jump from flight to lunar landing seem glacially slow.

The Cuckoo's Egg is a book that makes you first marvel at how different computing was when the book was written and then gasp at the vast gulf between the attitudes of then and now. In 1989 Stoll was the kind of optimist that it seemed was needed to promote the growth and understanding of networked systems, but in 2016 he looks like a hopeless idealist. We're on an internet that is, essentially, Stoll's version of computer hell. There's no transparency, everything is password protected and a lot of communication is encrypted - whole security systems are set up to verify the authenticity of requests from jump to jump and server to server. Stoll operated in a world where anyone with a phone line could enter almost any server because very few servers had any means of preventing them from doing so.

I (kind of) work in IT and I (actually) spend a lot of time dealing with, discussing, and researching information security (InfoSec - which is a polite way of saying "hacking" and hack prevention). As a result of my time spent on IT and InfoSec Stoll's ancient systems are fascinating in how they are constructed on a basis of trust that has *never* existed in my adult lifetime. But it's also really interesting that, in spite of how untrusting we've become, we're still dealing with a lot of the same problems Stoll describe. People are still bad at changing default passwords, applying patches, and managing individual accounts. We're still infinitely socially engineerable and it's usually pretty easy to guess most people's account names and passwords based on the information available on their public facebook pages (or at least it's easy to re-set their accounts so that you can change their passwords).

But one thing that did suffer tremendously in the wake of the attacks described in The Cuckoo's Egg has been the slow, aching death of open-source software. It's not 100% gone and probably never will be - everyone has experienced open-source in the form of Wikipedia - but open-source operating systems make up a much smaller part of the landscape than they did in 1989.

The EMACS word processing program was an oft-unpatched open-source program that had a vulnerability and left a backdoor into systems it was installed on. Using an accidental opening like this to access a system is called an exploit and exploits are what has led to the languishing of open-source products. If anyone can add to the code of a program than anyone can drop in a backdoor or a virus; large software companies don't typically do this intentionally and attempt to prevent it from accidentally happening because they have a reputation to worry about. We can actually see this playing out in the world right now with attitudes toward Adobe Flash and debates about OSX and Windows; Flash is being phased out because it's too open to attack, OSX has gotten major criticism for concealing SSH vulnerabilities, and Microsoft is facing a lot of suspicion because it sometimes seems like Windows 10 was specifically made to be difficult to protect. When an exploitable vulnerability from a major publisher becomes known they rush to fill the hole to keep their customer base. When a vulnerability becomes clear in open source software users often question if the cure is going to be worse than the disease.

Most people who use open-source operating systems and programs these days are somewhat more savvy than people who are comfortable using a computer straight out of the box - I think this is because there's a sense of inevitability. Open-source users know that their configuration is a fleeting thing that's going to be lost to upgrades and reinstalls in three months to keep up with technology and security from known vulnerabilities. It's more overhead than casual users are comfortable worrying about.

But back to Stoll - his story is the reason that this is true. The Cuckoo's Egg tells the story of the first really well documented (and publicly known) ongoing hack. Now we hear about this kind of thing every other month, but Stoll had front-row seats to watch the way that humans were going to define the way that other humans interacted with networks. And it turns out that humans were going to have to be more isolated and circumspect than the idealistic Stoll had hoped.

The book is a good read from a historical perspective, and it's a genuinely interesting story, but it won't tell you a hell of a lot about the way technology works today. It brings up some good questions that we have yet to supply good answers for (most notably: how do you handle discovering an exploit - do you reveal it and risk copycats or keep it secret and hope more malicious actors don't stumble on it) and he makes a strong case for education and transparency.

There are some pretty awkward moments, though, as a result of when it was written. At one point Stoll, a Berkeley liberal in the late 80s, mimics a Chinese accent in a way that is painful to read. There's a mild undercurrent of benevolent sexism. It's not comfortable, but it does explain a lot about how and why internet culture came to be what it is (mainly that it basically got started by English-speaking white dudes who had no idea they were excluding women or people of color, and would have been offended if you suggested that they were doing so - surprise! everything is very much the same).

I liked The Cuckoo's Egg, I'll be hanging onto it and probably re-reading it a few times in the future. It's a great case study, if nothing else, and is written in an engaging and understandable way.

     - Alli

Stoll, Clifford. The Cuckoo's Egg. Doubleday Publishing. New York: New York. 1989.

Monday, October 31, 2016

What's that howling in the distance?


Neoreaction a Basilisk is a book that I supported through Kickstarter. I had a lot of fun reading it but you should probably know by now that I have somewhat strange tastes.

It's a book of literary theory and philosophy that explores the NRX movement in a tone that suggests it might be (but isn't) a novel.

It's hard to explain.

But I did have fun reading it. It made me feel incredibly inadequate at points (like how much I feel I need to brush up on Blake after reading it) and dragged and reached at points (like when it's attempting to use Hannibal as a reflection of one of the unholy trinity at the center of the book) but as a whole it was entertaining.

Philip Sandifer (the author) is a personality I know through Tumblr and I haven't read anything he's written other than his blog posts and his philoso-novel about bizarre politics. He seems like an interesting thinker and he has a devastatingly wry, which is most of what makes the book worth reading.

For me, at least.

I don't know if it'll be worth reading for you if you aren't heavily invested in criticism of the NRX movement and literary theory. "Let us assume that we are fucked," the book opens, and repeats. If you can get behind that statement and wish to explore it further, this might be the book for you.

     - Alli

Sandifer, Philip. Neoreaction a Basilisk. Conspiracy Zine Edition.  2016.

Good, bad, and editing

I've talked a bit about my sister's movie month programs, and I've talked a lot about my family's obsessions with media, but I don't know if I've talked about why.

Part of it may have to do with the fact that Strother Martin is my cousin and I basically grew up in a circus family.

My Grandfather, a lifetime performing stage magician by profession, married my Grandmother - a badass lady whose first cousin happened to be one of the more recognizable bit actors in about a hundred films.

Probably his most famous line is as the Warden in Cool Hand Luke - "What we have here is failure to communicate." He played that kind of guy.

At least when he wasn't playing mad scientists or Satanic cult leaders. Because he was my grandmother's cousin (and therefore my dad's cousin and therefore my cousin) my family has seen A LOT of his hundred-plus movies. Some of them (like Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) are legitimately good movies. Others (like Sssssss!) are not. The Brotherhood of Satan is one of Strother's movies that is NOT a good movie.

But, fuck, it almost could be. The director was more competent than I expected, the cinematographer took some chances and landed on some kickass shots. Dialogue that could have been straight-up rotten mostly lands because the casting director got lucky.

I actually feel like this would be a damn decent little film if someone would sit down and do a fan edit and maybe mix up the music a bit. It's an early 70s schlock horror flick about a satanic cult so there's probably no way to make it a great film (some of those costumes and props just can't be gotten around) but it's surprisingly understated for what it is and pretty damn entertaining in spite of all the ways it easily could have failed.

If you're looking for a goofy horror film to throw on in the background of a party you could do a lot worse than The Brotherhood of Satan.

     - Alli

Disassociation for fun and profit

Shirley Jackson makes me feel crazy, which kind of makes me feel okay because I get the feeling that Shirley Jackson was crazy too. She writes characters who are having breakdowns or who are reacting to trauma or who are living with mental illnesses in such a convincing way that I can't help but be convinced. She knows what she's talking about. She's telling the story about the inside of her head, which coincidentally happens to have some similarities to the inside of my head. At least that's how I feel.

If We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a staggering portrait of obsessive compulsive disorder then Hangsaman feels like the impact of PTSD, which is how I chose to interpret it on my first reading. I will probably go through and read the book again and try to apply different interpretations, but on this first go-round I read the social anxiety and hallucinations (? maybe?) of the second and third parts of the novel as Natalie's reaction to being raped in the first chapter. But Jackson never makes it clear that Natalie was raped, just as she never makes it clear whether Natalie is hallucinating or if the world she occupies is just an incredibly strange one.

The openness to interpretation is what drew me so deeply into this book. There are at least two major ways that it can be read that are immediately obvious but there seem to be infinite ways to interpret every interaction that Natalie has.

Which is part of why it fucked with me. Natalie's internal voices and the stories she tells herself as conversational asides and the sideways view she takes of the world makes it totally unclear how the world works in this novel right from the start.

The ambiguity is brilliant and the fact that it's sustained from start to finish is a wicked trick that I admire deeply.

I'd read "The Lottery" in high school or college, as so many people in the US do, but never more than that until this year. Within 6 months and 2 books I've come to feel the same combination of admiration, frustration, and awe for Jackson as I previously only felt for Phillip K. Dick - at least in terms of an author who can make me question reality to the point that it seems to become unhealthy.

And let's be real, any novel that fucks with its narrative enough to make me feel like it's fucking with reality is a novel I want to spend a lot of time with. I can't state enough how much I'm enjoying reading Jackson and how much more I want to read as soon as I can get my hands on it.

     - Alli

Jackson, Shirley. Hangsaman. Penguin Classics. New York: New York. 2013. (1951).

A basket of deplorables

I don't even know why I wanted to read A Confederacy of Dunces. I think it's just one of "those" books, you know? It ends up on tons of must-read, Western literary canon, well-read lists and I guess I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

Turns out it's about repugnant people in a surrealistic dreamworld New Orleans.

The book is actually very funny and very fucking bitter. John Kennedy Toole did a really fantastic job of lampooning a truly bizarre swath of stereotypes but I'm left wondering why.

I get what Myrna Minkhoff is supposed to represent, and Mrs. Levy, and Miss Lee - I'm clear on what Toole was contemptuous of in these three women. I also get what he's criticizing with the whole Manusco arc and the character of Jones - institutional problems, education, bureaucracy, yadda yadda yadda.

But what the fuck is going on with the Reillys? Like yeah, okay Irene is too forgiving and makes excuses for her son and coddles him and drinks and I guess those are all things to laugh at? But her son is a literal monster. Of course Irene drinks, she lives with a monster. I suppose the book is overall sympathetic to her, but I'm just not sure what she's supposed to be parodying other than, maybe, a loving mother. The relationship between Irene and Ignatius is fascinating to me considering the way Toole's famous novel ended up getting published.

Ignatius is hilarious (the whole book is hilarious) and gross in every way, and it's amusing for a while to wallow with him but I find the proximity cloying.

I'm pretty significantly disconcerted at the similarity between Ignatius' ridiculous revivalist medieval attitudes and the current political climate, though. It's somewhat upsetting to read about a monstrous fictional intellectual calling for a return to lords and serfs while at the same time in the real world there is a political movement that is calling for a return to lords and serfs. Ignatius is a mind-bogglingly accurate prediction of the modern neoreactionary movement, down to his obsessive disgust with women and his condescending and manipulative attitude toward urban blacks and the predatory revulsion he holds for the queer community he interacts with.

It's actually a little creepy how close Toole was to the mark for something that happened more than half a century after he died. Especially since Toole was aiming for over-the-top ridiculous and obviously fantastical characters. Maybe the NRX movement will run off to New York with some slacktivists and leave the rest of us happier in their absence as well.

     - Alli

Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces. Grove Press. New York: New York. 2002. (1980).

Friday, October 28, 2016

Perfectly strange

I don't know any way that I could make it clearer that my family is obsessed with movies. My dad has something like 3 dedicated movie blogs and does podcasts as part of a movie podcast network, my sister minored in film, and when I go back to my parents' house it's difficult to find a surface that isn't in some way covered in posters and memorabilia, from my dad's collection of signed lithograph James Bond prints to my sister's pop figures and special edition DVD display shrine to the rotating posters over our fireplace (currently The Mechanic, Jodorosky's Dune, and 50 Shades of Grey because I'm pretty sure my mom is the ultimate troll), to the TWO walls of DVDs and the thousand-plus laserdiscs. We are a movie family. I'm the least movie person in my family and I'm still one of the most movie-oriented people in my friend group.

For a couple of years now my sister has had a Christmas Movie Advent Calendar - a foam-core tree with paper ornaments that hide the printed out cards she's made to tell her what movie she's watching that day. Usually around Thanksgiving she'll sit down and make sure all the cards have their appropriate posters neatly glued on and then she'll organize that year's configuration. There are some staples and standards (Die Hard, the ultimate Christmas movie, is always on the first) but she likes to vary the lineup. This year, for the first time, she's made an October Horror Movie Calendar.

Because I hang out with my parents and my sister at least once a week that means I sometimes get sucked into her movie projects. I don't always stay for the film they're watching that day (The Polar Express sucks, I'm out) but sometimes she'll schedule a film she knows I like for a day she knows I'll be there (see also why I've written about Edward Scissorhands twice so far).

Which is a lot of backstory to tell you that Bubba Ho Tep is fucking awesome.

I actually saw this weirdo little film in its incredibly limited theatrical release with my dad way back in 2003. There was a tour of showings, one happened to be at UC Irvine, and there was going to be a Q&A with Bruce Campbell and Don Cascarelli after the show (if you didn't find that exciting you probably won't like the movie). Seeing that showing with my dad was really cool. I got a few photos of Bruce Campbell, the cast and crew were funny and engaging in their responses to the audience, and I got a tee shirt out of the deal. Plus the movie was good!

Watching it with my sister as she saw it for the first time I was reminded that it's a perfect storm of campy excellence. The plot is that Elvis and JFK are still alive and in a nursing home together where they have to fight off a mummy who sucks souls out of the assholes of the aged residents of the home. That sounds like the stupidest thing ever, and in some ways it is, but Bruce Campbell is a fucking GREAT old grumpy Elvis, Ossie Davis is an odd but entertaining JFK, and Don Coscarelli literally has "scare" in his name and it was like he was genetically engineered to make perfect, cheap, strange horror movies.

I know that there's just too much disbelief to suspend for this to be a serious movie, or even a movie that many people will like. At one point Bruce Campbell (who it should be noted has "Camp" in his name, it's like these two are a dream team) as Elvis fights a giant rubber scarab with a bedpan, a meat fork, and a space heater. There's a climactic battle that involves a motorized wheelchair and a flamethrower. There are SO, SO MANY dick jokes. But there are also a ton of really good low-budget effects that serve as a reminder that you can make a scene really creepy without desaturating your film or tossing in jump scares. Just some flickering light and intense music will add more of a creep factor than adding film grain and CGI monsters for millions in post. It's a great way to handle a budget of about a million bucks when you're making a super indie flick.

It's occasionally a genuinely touching movie too - it takes place in a home full of dying people and addresses how people handle death.

Kemosabe is a character who has reverted to childhood and wears a Lone Ranger mask and holds cap guns at all times. He goes down fighting and the combination of the way it's shown and Cambell's voiceover at that moment makes me cry every time.

Side note: Ella James is also in this movie as a kind but condescending nurse and she's fucking rad. And I'd like to note that Ella James and Ossie Davis are two black actors in a horror movie and at no point are either of them gratuitously murdered to make it more scary for the white main. There's some tension around both of them, yeah, but it's really great to avoid the "kill the minority" stereotype.

Anyway I had a blast watching this with my sister and it was nice to be reminded of what a fun little film Bubba Ho Tep is.

     - Alli

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Beautiful bites of story

You know the phrase "read 'em and weep"? I don't think it's supposed to be literal but that's what happened in Sandra Cisneros' beautiful introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of her lovely book The House on Mango Street. And I don't want you going away under the impression that this was the only place I cried while reading the novel. Throughout there were stunning moments of poignant liminality that just fucking obliterated me. This is the good shit.

It's a novel in the shape of dozens of vignettes, none more than seven pages long, that tells the story of a little family and its inner life. It is knock-down drag-out gorgeous. And it's an incredibly compelling way to craft a novel - the book doesn't have a unified theme, or any one particular plot to tie it together, but instead it's held together by tiny bites of wonder. Each chapter is a piece of art, made to be the utmost that it can be in the small space it's given before bleeding away into another beautiful bite until you reach the end and are sated, having gorged yourself in every moment of the book.

I think I found The House on Mango Street so compelling and addictive because you don't know where it will take you next, whose story will pop up on the next page, how many years will have passed, what color the sky will be. But you know that when you find out it will be transportive and lushly written and invite you into the world of itself and hold you there until the next little world opens up.

Good books take up places in your heart, they fill in the shadows of your memory and live in your thoughts. Great book fix something about you that you didn't know was missing, they change you irrevocably. The House on Mango Street is a Great Book. And I know I've talked a lot this year about books that should be required reading but this is another book getting added to that list. Read it, especially if you want to write.

Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. Vintage Contemporaries. New York: New York. 2009. (1984).

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Keeping the action going

Sometimes you just need to read a book that's a lot of fun but doesn't have a hell of a lot of substance. And sometimes those kinds of books are slow burners that make you realize you read more than you were in for when you closed the book a couple of weeks ago.

I think Brockway has a lot to say about poverty and effort and loss that doesn't scan on the surface level of these books but that takes up the spaces between the pages. His main characters are a homeless old punk and a barely-employed stuntwoman and waitress, after all.

And I think that the conclusions he comes to, or wants his readers to come to, are generally kind. It actually kind of feels like he's written the Empty Ones series as a way to say "I know it's hard out there, come have some ridiculous explosions, you've earned them."

God damnit, I have earned these explosions, and I enjoyed them while I was reading them. Brockway is a little more basic than a lot of the books I read these days, but it's really nice to just take a break and sink into something silly and explosive and over-the-top that still seems to be optimistic about humanity and has an optimistic attitude to offer.

I appreciate it, and eagerly await the next book in the series.


Brockway, Robert. The Empty Ones. Tor. New York: New York. 2016.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Delicious porn

Megan Rose Gedris got her book, Eat Me, funded on Kickstarter. I supported it, I got the book, and I'm super happy. I donated at a level that got me two books, Eat Me and Darlin' it's Betta. Darlin' it's Betta is more of what you'd traditionally expect when you hear the word "porn" - it doesn't have much plot but it has a TON of sex. Eat Me also has a lot of sex but also has a much deeper level of story that pulls you along and makes the sex more tantalizing as you're taking a break between erotic scenes.

The story is that Rhonda, a low-level employee at a pharmaceutical company, gets a secret formula spilled on her that sends her into a universe where all the food for human is sentient people who need to be seduced before they'll allow a bit of themselves to be eaten. It's a really adorable take on vampire mythology where humans become the supernatural monsters. There ARE bad humans in the foodiverse who will eat the food folks without consent and Rhonda teams up with Lisa to fight the big bad monsters to protect the food folks.

There's more to it but I don't want to spoil anything because the plot is fun to work through and the sex becomes secondary to the story for a large part of the book. There's also a really sweet little love story that is a nice element which builds slowly and makes the book more of a fulfilling meal than just a sugar rush.

Also it's incredibly beautiful - the imagination and artistry that went into creating a sexy food universe is brilliant and really is a great example of why I like Megan Rose Gedris so much as an artist and author. She goes a step further than just straight-up porn and turns it into an immersive experience that switches from high-contrast black-and-white to vibrant, full color pages. It's just fantastic from beginning to end and I can't recommend her work enough - go buy some!

     - Alli

Gedris, Megan Rose. Eat Me. Rosalarian. Chicago: Illinois. 2016.

Great genre mixing

If you like funny books but have trouble finding funny novels I can't recommend enough. Aside from the fact that it's a hilarious humor site it's also a fantastic place to find authors because the Cracked writers are constantly getting book deals.

Chris Bucholz writes bad advice columns and funny articles for Cracked, he's also written a novel called Severance about a generation ship from Earth traveling to an Earth-like planet a couple of hundred years in the future. The novel is a combination of science fiction, murder mystery, comedy, and action/adventure. It's sort of an inverted Sherlock Holmes thing, actually, with minor criminals solving a major crime that could change the future of the human race as a whole.

The story jumps to different points in the process of moving from Earth to a new planet which gives a really interesting perspective on the history set up by the story. There is also a great background discussion of the issues of genetic diversity that would become a problem on any realistic colonizing journey, which is handled very well and brings up the ethics of gene tampering and that's exactly the kind of geeky theoretical ethical dilemma I'm here for.

I really liked the characters and history of the ship, I think a lot of work went into building a believable world. I enjoyed the novel as a whole but it was little details like meat-trees and faulty thermometers that helped create an element of realism for such a speculative setting.

I'd love to see more novels from Bucholz in the future, and I'd definitely be open to reading more of his work.

     - Alli

Bucholz, Chris. Severance. Apex Publications. Lexington: Kentucky. 2014.

Sexy mermaids for miles

I've reviewed Megan Gedris' work before - she's great, click on any part of this sentence to go to her website and buy stuff from her. I recently participated in a Kickstarter campaign for her new book Eat Me, but I purchased a bundle that included her graphic novel Darlin' it's Betta Down Where it's Wetta, which is a story about a girl and a mermaid coming together for sexytimes and then coming together.

It's great! It's beautiful, it's sexy, it's erotic, it's full of lovely illustrated vaginas having a great time getting tickled, titillated, and teased by tentacles. There is some plot, there is a story that progresses, but the story is secondary to watching a whole bunch of women have a great time pleasuring each other and themselves.

If you like women, if you like women who love women, if you like porn, and if you like graphic novel versions of all of the above this is 100% something that you should check out.

Also A+ for including stunning, sexual fat women. I always enjoy it when there are diverse body-types in porn but it felt very special that the main character through the whole comic was a fat woman who enjoyed discovering her body and how to pleasure herself.

There's not a whole lot else to say - this is all just a fun story about sexy girls getting laid.

And it's great!

     - Alli

Gedris, Megan Rose. Darlin' it's Betta Down Where it's Wetta. Rosalarian. Grand Rapids:
     Michigan. 2012

Institutionalized Paranoia

I read Michael Barkun's A Culture of Conspiracy earlier this year and enjoyed the academic look into the world of conspiracists; because I enjoyed that book (and because I am fascinated by the conspiracist mindset) I purchased Chasing Phantoms, which I believed was a book about the growth of a new conspiracist movement since September 11th 2001 - that is not at all what the book was about but just because I bought the wrong book doesn't mean that it wasn't provocative and compelling.

Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security Since 9/11 explores the other side of the coin that Barkun presented in A Culture of Conspiracy. One book takes a look into a paranoid citizenry who sees shadows in their governments, the other examines a paranoid government that considers its citizens as threats. Chasing Phantoms is, at this point, a bit outdated. Several times throughout the book Barkun points out that there haven't been any major terrorist attacks in the US but it was written before the Boston Marathon Bombing, the Charlotte Church shooting, the San Bernadino shooting, and the attack at Pulse Nightclub. But one of the points that Barkun repeatedly makes is that since 9/11 the US government's anti-terrorist forces have placed a large emphasis on WMDs (with special attention paid to biological and radioactive agents) while the vast majority of terrorist attacks in the US before, since, and including 9/11 have been conventional attacks with homebrewed bombs or guns (the one major exception being the anthrax attacks shortly after 9/11, which were determined to be the work of one man who helped run one of the few anthrax research labs in the US and who appears to have mailed anthrax-laced letters to ensure his lab would remain vital in a nation fearful of terrorists). So even though some of Barkun's information has fallen victim to the passage of time his central thesis remains true: current homeland security practice is more focused on difficult-to-detect, hard to manufacture threats from an invisible population of potentially radicalized immigrants than it is on preventing conventional terrorist attacks from known quantities (for instance Dylan Roof had clear white supremacist imagery and attacked a back church with a handgun he legally obtained after a three-day waiting period, but we're all handing over water bottles in the airport because of one failed bombing).

Barkun also dedicates a significant amount of ink to discussing the reasons behind the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and its early missteps in maintaining security - especially the spectacular departmental fumble that was evaluating and evacuating New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Interdepartmental miscommunications, no true chain of command, and jealousy over credit led to an enormous human cost. Changes have been made to that system since the failures during Katrina, but that the unpreparedness for Katrina was allowed to happen at all is sobering when considered against the backdrop of secret-hoarding and lack of communication that kept various agencies from coordinating to potentially prevent the country's largest terrorist event. 9/11 might not have happened if some agency had existed that fostered a culture of sharing information about threats; once such an agency was created the first threat if faced was natural, not human, and the department didn't respond appropriately. The organization has changed since both 9/11 and Katrina but serious questions have been raised about the bureaucracies meant to protect and what their motives are.

Chasing Phantoms is an incredibly dry book, and overall it is probably not the sort of thing that many people will find useful reading. People who care deeply about or who are involved with policy concerning threat prevention should probably all read it, but it's not written for an audience that isn't already familiar with academic discussions of defense policy and security theater. The one exception is the discussion of invisible versus visible threats and folk devils - Barkun does a brilliant job of laying out why the "secretly radicalized terrorist next door" trope is such an effective way of scaring a population and he makes excellent work of explaining why groups on the fringes of society make such excellent targets for and hatred from the local majority (which also just creates a self-perpetuating cycle: the majority fears the radicalization from a minority group and so isolates the minority, who become radicalized because of poor treatment and threats from the majority, on and on, ad infinitum.)

It's not likely that I'll read the book completely through again, but it's nice to have it as part of my reference collection. I do know people in computer security communities I would recommend it to. But it's really, painfully boring at times. I suppose that's the nature of the beast with an academic political science study talking about policy failures.


Barkun, Michael. Chasing Phantoms. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill:
     North Carolina. 2011.

Monday, September 12, 2016

A haunted past

I don't want to be the kind of person who's super into true crime because I have a strong negative association with people who are into true crime. But that doesn't mean I'm not the sort of person who likes reading about serial killers or manhunts or the messy judicial process of an alleged killer being brought to trial. So basically I'm a snob who thinks true crime "is beneath me" but who is way into true crime.

I don't know, it's complicated. I know like four people who have serial killer tattoos and I live with one person who loves watching true crime but that overlaps with watching Nancy Grace and high profile trials. And that I can't hang with. I think the history of crime is fascinating, I think reading about trials is fascinating, I think reading about serial killers is fascinating, but there's this fannish culture that's grown out of true crime that I find incredibly gross and bloodthirsty and voyeuristic and I just can't hang with it.

But I did enjoy reading Truman Capote's In Cold Blood more than many of the other books I've read about murders or tracking down serial rapists or court cases and I think it's because Capote elevates it with a level of sympathy that's hard to pin down for murders without being creepy as fuck. Capote's portrayal of the killers shows them as murderers who made terrible choices and did awful things but who were still people with families or who loved animals or who had been very badly hurt without ever attempting to excuse their crimes.

Which I think gets into the heart of why I don't like the fannishness of true crime as it exists today. Either human murderers are completely dehumanized and turned into demonic monsters (which only serves to terrify viewers and blow up cultural anxiety and give money to Nancy Grace) or the scales get tipped too far toward sympathy and you end up with Charles Manson getting married to a young woman who has been a fan of him her whole life. Worship and abject terror shouldn't be the only two reactions we have to violence or crime - and I think that Capote's detached consideration and curiosity are a more understandable and reasonable reaction.

It's clear that Capote was fascinated by his subjects but remained horrified by their crime while still being contemptuous of both them and the community reaction to them. In Cold Blood is a compelling book because it walks a fine line everywhere it goes - the townspeople are sympathetic but banal, the murdered family were well-loved but elitist, the murderers are admirable but stupid. He portrays multiple shades and angles of all of his subjects and leaves the reader to muddle through the mess of a murder motivated by money, a score that didn't score and left the world more empty.

It's a sad book, and occasionally a very funny book. Capote obviously has his opinions about the people he wrote about but doesn't pass judgement. It seems like a cleaner experience with true crime than I'm used to and I appreciated not feeling like I needed to take a shower when I finished the book.

And it doesn't hurt that Capote is a tremendously competent artist. The landscapes and people spring to life as you read and fill with the rustling of grain and the percussion of empty bottles rocking in the back seat of a stolen car. He leaves you feeling clean but sun-weathered and dust-coated like many of his subjects; you feel the loneliness of a prairie morning and the close comfort of a corrupted game room just as easily as you feel the sparkling waters and thrumming fishing poles of a Mexican resort.

Capote's touch is brilliant in many places throughout this book but it's genius when it comes to setting a scene for the reader to play a part in.


Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. Vintage Books. New York: New York. 2012. (1965).

Remaking in your image

I am dragging ass today (or all of the last two weeks) and don't have the energy to go story-by-story through Trigger Warning and offer an opinion of each piece.

I will say that I enjoyed the book as a whole, and in many ways it was a departure from much of the Gaiman that I've read before. There was a touch of science fiction thrown in, a story about an artist that seemed like a truly dark reversal of Neverwhere, a lovely poem about writer's block and chairs, and a delightful addition to the American Gods universe (that felt perhaps a bit too much like the last delightful addition to the American Gods universe). I can't think of a single story that I hated, and I want to spend a little time talking about a couple of stories that I loved.

 "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" and "The Sleeper and the Spindle" are both available as standalone illustrated books. I've picked them up and looked through them both in comic shops and bookstores but I haven't had the money to buy both of them and I feel guilty about reading books I can't buy so I just admired the art and set them back down. I had no idea the stories were included in Trigger Warning but I was delighted to finally be able to read both of them and both of them are WONDERFUL.

"The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains" is a spooky folktale about loss and what you're willing to sacrifice to get what you want. It's more of a novella than a short story and it's lovely - you can practically feel the mist condensing on your skin and hear the waves slapping on the shore as you move through the story with Gaiman's characters and they progress toward their questionable goal.

"The Sleeper and the Spindle" is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty with a side-order of Snow White and it kicks utter ass. I don't want to say anything more than that because it's so delightful and unexpected that I'd hate to spoil any of the surprises the story holds. Suffice it to say that this is really the only version of either of the original stories that I'm capable of giving a shit about anymore. When Gaiman makes a story his own he does it right.

     - Alli

Gaiman, Neil. Trigger Warning. William Morrow. New York: New York. (2015).

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Problems and the bigger ones

There are plenty of books that fuck me up but Kindred fucked me up pretty good. It was painful to read but felt cleansing. Cathartic is the best word for it.

It also made me realize that the best books I've read this year have all been written by black women, a subset of authors who were largely missing from the readings assigned from kindergarten all the way up until I got my BA in English literature.

But Octavia Butler did show up in ONE of my college English Classes. We read a short story of hers in my junior college science fiction survey class. I'm really glad I got the opportunity to read her, but FUCK, why did no one think she belonged in my Modern American Lit survey?

Kindred is amazing and painful. It pulls back the veil on the ugliness of slavery from a 20th century perspective while ALSO illustrating that the 20th century was by no-means a post-racial society. Dana is a brilliantly crafted character who has to struggle with layers and layers of oppression and interpretation of that oppression both in her time and in the antebellum era she is transported to.

There's a lot that I could talk about here; Dana's painful encounters with Rufus, her guilt over her interactions with Sarah, her inability to find her place in either time, but I think one of the most interesting and fraught relationships shown in the novel is Dana's marriage to Kevin. She loves Kevin and he loves her but there's a distance between them that Kevin alone is incapable of seeing. The subtlety of Butler's commentary on 20th century race relations through Kevin's privileged perspective of racism is beautifully done and a tremendous part of what makes the novel so compelling - even when Dana is safe she's never really safe, even when she is recognized as a person she is still a woman, and black, and still seen as somehow "less than."

I'd strongly recommend that anyone reading this blog read Kindred. It's stunning.

     - Alli

Butler, Octavia. Kindred. Beacon Press. Boston: Massachusetts. 2003. (1979).

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Burning with anxiety

Hey, you wanna get weird and esoteric and nitpicky with me for a sec? Of course you do; if you didn't want to do that sort of thing you wouldn't be reading a book blog written by a pedantic jerk with a frighteningly good memory.

This, by the way, has basically nothing to do with the book I'm talking about. It's just weird and esoteric and nitpicky.

So. Anyway. How odd is it for you, as a reader, to come across a self-referential thing in the work of an author you're reading for the first time? Like part of me says it would be kind of cool - you read this late book that makes reference to an early book but then later you read the early book and go "OH MY FUCKING GOD, THAT'S WHAT THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT" and your mind is blown. But the larger part of me thinks that it would stand out as something that could have been edited out? Like if you didn't know that one or two throwaway lines were referencing another book by the same author, one that had no other connection to the book you're currently reading and in context sounds weird when juxtaposed with the work you're holding in your hand, would it just confuse you as to why an editor allowed that to go to print?

I bring this up because Joe Hill makes one throwaway reference to NOS4A2 in The Fireman and it made me kind of smirk, because I'd read the book and I got the reference, but it wasn't a particularly graceful reference and also made me cringe a tiny bit because it felt forced.

But maybe that's just me. When you're reading you're supposed to feel empathy toward the characters you're reading about but I have such a surplus of empathy that I step out of the story to try to parse the emotional state of hypothetical other readers.

Yes, I do have social anxiety. How did you know?

Anyway the book is great! I really enjoyed reading it and got so into the story that at one point I had to put the book down and wander away for two days because the fallout that I could feel coming was upsetting me. Which is fantastic when you're reading a thriller. It legitimately got me so invested in the story and the action that I couldn't handle the tension and maybe only made myself more anxious by putting off a sense of resolution for two days.

Also, fun sidenote, the other Joe Hill novels I've read have an issue with rape. As in there's a bit too much of it and it's a bit graphic in a way that seems gratuitous or it makes a too-huge impact on the story (N0S4A2 did not have this issue). This book did not have that problem! There's implied rape/harassment but it's character background for an antagonist instead of character definition for a protagonist. I really appreciated that! It's clear that Hill does not like rape, and doesn't want his readers to think rape is a good thing, but that has led to an unfortunate tendency toward rape-as-backstory OR believed-rape-as-backstory. Again, this doesn't have that! Our protagonist is not a rape survivor; she's had her share of shit to deal with but that is not among her pile of shit.

Also it's pretty goddamned cool to have an apocalyptic novel with (Spoilers! Spoilers!) a pregnant woman, a d/Deaf child, a teenage girl defying gender norms, and a middle-aged black woman as the primary protagonists. I like that a lot, I hope a lot of people like that a lot, and I hope that more white authors will begin putting marginalized characters in their works without being afraid that it'll kick them out of the running for the bestseller list.

Anyway. In general I say fuck yes, this was a tremendously fun book to read. I thought Hill did a great job of handling everything from paranoid reactions to potential threats (Jacob) to cult-like reactions among the infected (Carol) to survivor's guilt (John). The Fireman is a compelling page-turner that I will be reading again at a later date, and I'm sure I'll enjoy it similarly on the second go-round.

     - Alli

Hill, Joe. The Fireman. Harper Collins. New York: New York. 2016.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Prim and proper porn

Look, you don't have to tell me, I'm WELL AWARE of the fact that I read a lot of pornographic comic books. In fact I'm currently excitedly waiting for delivery of THREE smutty comics from Kickstarters I supported. Which is exactly where I got two lovely volumes from Jess Fink's Chester 5000 universe.

Chester 5000 XYV and Isabelle & George are delightful little porno comics, each is made up of beautifully illustrated standalone comic pages that come together into stunning stories full of affection, humor, and lots of fucking. Chester is the story of a Victorian lady who falls hard for the boner-bot her harried husband builds as an outlet for her energy, and Isabelle & George tells the story of that same harried husband beginning a partnership with another inventor and his wife - with some INCREDIBLY unexpected twists and turns along the way.

Both books make for quick reads in some ways - they have no dialogue and very few words pop up on any of the pages. In other ways they're good books to take your time with, at the very least so you don't get the lavishly drawn pages sticky.

These are A+ 100% worth the money I spent on them (and I got a cool enamel pin that nobody understands to wear on my battle vest) and I highly recommend that if you're looking for some classy lady-on-robot fuckin' or some classy dude-and-dude-and-lady fuckin' that you pick these up and spend some time enjoying them.

Also Jess Fink is a rad artist who has done lots of rad things, and she's an independent artist so you should go follow her on social media and check out her stuff and buy things that she sells by clicking anywhere on this sentence.

Fink, Jess. Chester 5000 XYV. Top Shelf Productions. New York: New York. 2015
Fink, Jess. Isabelle & George. Canada. 2016

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Out of the dark

Aliens: The Original Comics Series wasn't what I thought it would be - a straight comic adaptation of the second film of the Alien franchise - it was significantly cooler and more exciting than that.

This series is everything that everything after Aliens should have been. It was a great exploration of characters we're already attached to, has a compelling story and some horrifying visuals, and keeps your pulse up as you turn the pages in a way that rarely happens in comic books and NOW rarely happens in Alien films.

It feels like every bit of it belongs in the franchise in a way that is much more intuitive and fascinating than something like, say, Prometheus. *shudder*

The art is almost unspeakably great in almost every part of the story (the space jockeys look pretty stupid, honestly, and nothing at all like the delirious Geiger biomechanics that populate the rest of the franchise) and really shines in covers and two-page spreads. The introduction talks some about how the art was pulled off using a now-defunct product that allowed for incredibly careful control of halftones and that I find stunning, perplexing, and impossible to visualize. But I don't have to visualize the end results - they're in beautiful black and white on the page and they hold up as great examples of horror/sci-fi comic work in a genre that apparently hasn't had much motivation to improve in 30 years.

I really want to talk about the story but don't really know how to without totally fucking it up for someone who might be coming fresh to it. It's deep and heady and full of twists and turns that build tension and make you sad and scared and carry you along with the characters. It's brilliantly done and I can't wrap my head around the fact that we got Alien Resurrection and fucking Prometheus instead of an adaptation of this comic series. Those movies were bad enough before I knew that there was a fucking genius extension to the canon of the cinematic universe, and that this much more engaging story was passed over for Damon Lindhoff foolishness.

Aliens: The Original Comics Series is a great fast read that I really would strongly recommend to sci-fi fans, Alien fans, and grownups who don't know if comics are a medium they can take seriously, and anybody who's looking for a new series they can eat up all at once. It's really well done, and though I'm sad I didn't know about it before an extra copy showed up in my Dad's Loot Crate a couple months ago, I'm really happy to have read it and think it was well worth the couple of hours it takes to work through the whole thing.

     - Alli

Vernheiden, Mark. Mark A. Nelson. Aliens: The Original Comics Series. Dark Horse Comics.
     Milwauke: Oregon. 2016. (1986).

Men's men

Why didn't anyone tell me that A Streetcar Named Desire includes a character whose husband killed himself once his wife admitted disgust with his sexual orientation?

I really love Williams. I read Glass Menagerie my senior year in high school, and saw a production of Spring Storm in college, but I'd never been all that interested in A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley Kowalski just seemed like such a bundle of toxic masculinity that I wasn't all that interested in his narrative.

And that's what I thought it was - Stanley and Stella's story. But it's not, not by a mile.

Blanche, broken, lost, ageing, confused, regretful, Blanche, is the star of the story and that makes it a much more interesting play. Stanley and Stella are healthy people in an unhealthy relationship - they have a vitality and rawness about them that is compelling to read, but it doesn't hold a candle to the fascination I felt as I got to know Blanche and her fragile, failing grip on the world.

Also, in spite of the issue of the bury your gays trope that's discussed so much these days, it's important that Williams has a dead queer character in this story that is such a massive part of building the masculine mythos of the 50s. Without Streetcar we don't get Brando, without Brando we don't get the masculine ideals we're living with now. I can't say for sure what masculinity would have looked like in America in 2016 if we hadn't had Brando in 1957, but stinking, sweating, tee-shirt-tearing Stanley Kowalski is a huge part of what laid the foundations for modern masculinity. And that's why it's so fascinating by the fact that he has a canonical counterweight who is only experienced by the audience through Blanche's shattered memories. Blanche's lover was beautiful, he was refined, he was gentle, he was sweet, he was poetic, and he was gay. This isn't a homosexist exploration that divides the men from the sissies, this is Williams illustrating a kind of masculinity that was deplored and countering it with the gross, abrasive, abusive, violent masculinity of the world he lived in.

Which is important as fuck when you remember that it was written by a man who was queer bashed and attacked for his own presentation of masculinity, who was institutionalized like his shattered protagonist, and who was in many ways adrift in a world that didn't have a space for him.

All of which is lit-major speculation. If you want an actual appraisal of the play I think it's stunning and full of beautiful language that sings off the page and puts hooks in your heart. I think the characters are beautifully sculpted masterpieces who are a joy to watch. I think it's wonderful, that Tennessee Williams was a brilliant playwright, and that I want to read much more of his work.

     - Alli

Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New Directions. New York: New York.
     2004. (1947).

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Peace at last

I got so worn out reading War and Peace that it took me a couple of days to recover. Part of me had trouble leaving my Kindle behind when I left the house because I was sure I could pound out another 1-2% while in line at the grocery store or while waiting for my laundry to finish. But I was done! There was no more book to read! I could have the weekend to myself and move on. It was time to start another book. But I didn't. I couldn't.

I don't know that I've ever been so exhausted by a book. War and Peace was more tiring than Worm, though about half a million words shorter.

I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that I kept wanting to fling the book against the wall. I was so tired of all the court rules and who could and couldn't marry one another, and people making just the most ridiculous self-sacrifices for reasons that must be fundamentally Russian because they sure as hell didn't translate to my experience. But neither did Corsican-Frenchmen. Napoleon was intensely frustrating to read, which I think was the point. I mean really almost the entire book was beautifully crafted and family relationships were moving and just so full of minute details that it hits you in the face like a cannonball.

Also every single word about the Masons seemed like an utter waste of space. I mean I get that it was probably supposed to be a very important illustration of Pierre's wavering nature that would prove to be such a striking contrast to his character after the burning of Moscow, but for fuck's sake I can't bring myself to care about Masons NOW, when they're supposed to be actually controlling the world, how could I work up the shits to give about an organization that was ineffectually laying the groundwork to eventually fail at taking over the world? I couldn't. Fuck the masons. And fuck fraternal orgs in general - let some ladies in on the action.

Was I the only one who was supremely creeped out by the benevolent misogyny of the final chapter, by the way? Probably not, not in the least because it was so jarring. The bizarre shift in Natasha's character threw me for a loop, and Natasha and Mary's conforming to their husbands was unexpected and utterly overwhelming.

I mean I guess I shouldn't be surprised that a book about an era obsessed with class would also be obsessed with making sure people fit into their roles, but I reserve my right to look askance at a novel that tacks happily-ever-after relationships onto the lives of two women who have been interesting and defiant and different every time we've seen them.

I'm glad it's done. I wouldn't say I'm done with Tolstoy, I liked how he crafted characters and his luxuriant wallowing in the scenes he set, but I need a hell of a break.

     - Alli

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Gutenberg.Org. 1869.