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Monday, March 30, 2009

real life

Whew! only 15 more books from 2008 to go. As I look them over, I realize how few books of nonfiction I read last year. Not including the totally crazy Mia Tyler autobiography (which I will not be reviewing here), I read four and they were memoirs. A few of the comic collections I read had auto-bio bits, but I didn't delve into any nonfiction subject beyond internet reading and maybe a few magazine articles. Though you can't tell from the sidebar, 2009 is shaping up to be a much better year for nonfiction. Right now I am reading a book about the eye, and I have a few more science-y history books stacked and waiting.

I think I ought to add this one to the list, don't you? Bug girl certainly makes a case for it.
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Longtime readers and friends may have noticed that I let my brother's birthday yesterday go unremarked upon here. I certainly felt the unfinished business of his life press about my shoulders and face and spent parts of the day wishing with that raw feeling that is so much angrier than wishing that he was here to get my card and my love. Mostly though, I spent his birthday nourishing myself and my tiny family, did some maintenance of myself and my home and reveled in all the personal work I have done the past five years or so.

It was almost enough.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters


Yum. Fingersmith is the perfect book for a rainy night or a long train ride. In fact, I was facing a somber, book-less and long train ride with no book when I bought Fingersmith from a depressingly unpopulated (by people or good books) store in D.C.’s Union Station. Just buying it relaxed me enough to cause a ride-long slumber.

When I finally picked it up a few weeks later, I took it on a trip to Philly. All I knew about Sarah Waters was that she wrote historical mysteries with lesbians and that she was sufficiently creative to have her books shelved in the regular fiction section. Upon diving in what is essentially the story of a long con played out by multiple characters, I was worried that the instances of dialect (i.e. old-timey British) would become annoying, but Waters managed to stay on the enriching side of that fine line most of the time. Best word: “fuckster.”

Oh my, you may thinking, that doesn’t sound old-timey to me. Well, Waters’ tale is not only set in seething dens of poverty and vice, but it is filled with crossing and double-crossing, greed and secrets. There are plenty of fucksters about in Fingersmith; in fact, the very structure of the novel underlines that. The two young, female, main characters are both the authors and victims of their own destruction and each tells her story in a well-controlled first person. Though the story she weaves is twisted, somehow Waters’ manages to keep it fast-paced and realistic enough to keep the tension running high.

Even when things get bleak, and they do, this book is incredibly fun.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Mathematicians as monks, monasteries as think tanks, an unsophisticated and somewhat hostile outside world and an unknown menace. Who do you think will save the day?

If you don’t already like Neal Stephenson’s sprawling novels, Anathem will not endear you to his style. It is crazy long, full of asides and borderline-annoying lingo and the main character suffers from the same two conditions of many of Stephenson’s protagonists—everymanism and right-place-right-timeitis. And while it does get a little irksome to read follow the actions of a character ruled by other people’s actions and beset by “quirky” supporting characters. There is a bit of superficial commentary on government, race and religion but where Stephenson’s dedication to research really shines is his masterful transformation of geometry theory into a workable religious concept. The time travel element in the book was a nice surprise and an important addition to stories on the topic.

I was worried that it wouldn’t come together, but I was really pleased at the result of the author’s creative sweating. You can really tell that he is having fun with his writing and the joy that comes through in his books goes a long way to ameliorate his in-your-face zeal for nerdy intricacies. There are footnotes, my friends.

The only times I start to get exasperated with his style is when he insists on adding love story plotlines. They are awful, and the ground he gained with writing believable female characters in the Baroque Cycle seems to have been reclaimed by the dark side of geekdom. He practically trips over himself to show that the ladies are powerful, tough and in control, especially in romance. It’s condescending and annoying. Whenever characters start making eyes at each other I start to skim and there are two major instances of this in Anathem. Luckily in a book this long there are plenty of other things to focus on.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Freddie & Me: A Coming of Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody by Mike Dawson


Being a mid-level Queen fan and a lover of autobio comics, Freddie & Me seemed like a can’t-miss book. And Dawson’s wonderful black and white art certainly supports the theory that this book is worth having. His masterful control over the aging of the characters is up there with the Hernadezes, and cartoonists looking for a lesson in realistically following a character through years would do well to check out this book. Dawson’s depiction of his art’s maturation is also very well done. Lastly, Queen and Freddy Mercury look as cool and alien as they were and life just pours from the page when they, or Mike impersonating Freddy, are in frame. (The Wham! guys, in a delightful fictional aside, also come across as really real, pop bouffants and all).

The problem is in the story itself. Dawson’s instances of Queen-worship and adjustment to growing up and moving to America lack tension and never coalesce into a real narrative. Sadly, how the two elements inform each other is never fully established emotionally for the reader. Queen’s music is so dramatic that the tedium of Dawson’s telling of his story is unfortunately highlighted in bright red and underlined in glitter pen.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Keep by Jennifer Egan

The first few chapters of this book were delicious. There, the book is the story of two boy cousins, whose lives after a terrible prank caused unfortunate adulthoods, deciding to renovate a castle full of mysteries, and it really works. Throughout the book’s chapters it was this story thread that I looked forward to. Egan’s ghost story (I am using this term loosely) had tantalizing details and a sense of trickery about it, but all along I had a gnawing feeling that the end would not be satisfying and the enchantment would fall apart. Too bad I was right!

A few chapters in a we get a prison writing class, a group of cons, a sweet teacher named Holly and the question “‘Which one of these clowns is you?’” which felt like a giant ham thrown onto a delicately laid plate of sushi. Egan dances around unreliable narration and perspective, but because the result was a bit clumsy, I felt no compulsion to watch her steps. The character of Ray, the prisoner, writer, and first-person narrator, is a bit too introspective to be believable, even though he is supposed to be an outsider to prison, a man who did a single catastrophic thing. I was able ignore most of the characterization slipups in the face the work done on his interior world and Egan’s exploration of the heavily regulated realm of prison through him. Ray’s story works ok until the inevitable escape plan, and the addition of a Magical Negro character named Davis makes an already cliched plot twist even more grating.

The third part of the book adds an additional perspective that it didn’t need. Once again the tables are turned and we see the prison narrative from the view of Holly (the aforementioned teacher and victim of POV burnout)—what she thinks of Ray, the effect of his actions on her, perceptions turned on their heads and all that. I think Holly’s story would have worked well as a related novella because Egan gives her such a great back story but here it feels tacked-on for extra credit.

The Keep
is ambitious and I like that. I don't regret the $1.85 and the few hours I spent. I just wish that all of the elements had been equally compelling and that an nice, but strict, editor had shown Egan the business end of her red pen.

Edited to add: Wanna know where I got such a deal? Here, where I also got this.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Balance

One acceptance
One rejection

Four left to go

Argh, grad school!

dreaming is free (wave to Debbie)

My dreams last night included:
* Co-ed platonic showering as a timesaver and consideration of the options for explaining this delightful, if somewhat awkward, technique to significant others.
* An invasion of my garden by poor taste and poor composting. Also illegal fences.
* Indoor plant placement for the single male, including snake plants
* Office building shenanigans
* A return of certain vices, with regret

Not too far from real life, if a bit more colorful. I blame the terrible chocolate soy dessert I made and not reading before bed.

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Lately, I've been making dinner. It has been delicious, you should come over. A few hours after that it is late, and I get inspired to do projects or practice--writing, drawing, gluing things to other things. I know I should just go to bed so that the tomorrow(s) won't be awful, so instead of actually making things, I split the difference and stay up too late doing nothing. Then I am exhausted and pissed off when I wake up and droopy and stupid at work. Apparently I can only be a gettin'-it-done superstar in one arena, and despite the terrible choco-barf I made last night, it seems to be in the kitchen. No one is more surprised than I.

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So what should Eye Baggins Jones do with her unruly clock and seasonings?

Monday, March 23, 2009

linky

Matt Cheney on young writers as roomates. Includes Philip K. Dick, poetry and gay panic!
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Here is a comic about loss by Lauren Weinstein. A lot of people feel a little bit haunted; this comic makes perfect sense to me.
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Having trouble balancing your right and left, your ups and downs, your cowboy hats and submarines? This game from Vector Park is for you.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

link-smackin' good

Maud Newton has two events coming up that sound really great. Both are at the Housing Works Cafe & Bookstore.
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A week of groceries on $30? Here in New York? These folks are doing it and making really good food too. (Except for the nasty raw food week. Raw food dinner is a-ok. Raw food breakfast is not for the hedonistic, to say the least.)
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Science and life and being a lady--all the good things, no? Thesis--With Children is great writing on all of those topics and more. I have especially been enjoying the posts on race and academia.
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Speaking of science, here are some great posts on depression, courtesy of Neurotopia 2.0. Read the entire enlightening series.
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I've also been doing a lot of art snooping these days. If a poor person buying art is wrong, I don't want to be right!
Going to Boston tomorrow for a few days. Anything in particular I should do?

Monday, March 16, 2009

I review Toastycats 1 & 2 by Magda Boreysza over at inkstuds. Remember to comment, folks!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bergen Books

Tonight I joined SEC and PS for an evening of books on Bergen Street. First we went to the opening party for a new comic shop. Bergen Street Comics was jumping with comics folks (I spied Julia Wertz, MK Reed, Liz Baillie and Gabrielle Bell), a couple in complimentary checkered pants, various moustaches and free beer. Some people were enjoying the ample seating (a rarity in comic shops)The selection seemed to be a mix of mainstream and alternative offerings, shelved loosely by genre, but the two books I was looking for were gone-probably snapped up in the party's frenzy. So, despite being all caught up in the heady fumes of capitalism, I left empty-handed.
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A bit further down the block at 456 Bergen St. is Unnameable Books aka Adam's Books. Here new and used books mingle. I saw a bunch of treasures tucked into the shelves and while the prices are a bit higher than I'd like the selection makes up for any miserly feelings. Along with books, Unnameable has poetry chapbooks, zines and a few minicomics. There was also a good size children's section.
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On the way over from Atlantic station (the Bergen 2,3 stop was closed for construction) I spied a rather large Salvation Army.

All of this to say that I will be back.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Seas by Samantha Hunt

An unreview brought to you by waiting too long:

I don’t remember much of The Seas except the feeling of being set adrift in a story where sometimes detail was lost in favor of atmosphere. Damp, gauzy and shifting are my memories of reading this--enjoyable, but not enough to reread for this review.

Once I don’t feel so Tesla-ed out, I will pick up her newer book, The Invention of Everything.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Lone Racer by Nicholas Mahler

I got this at a bookswap last year. This little tale of love and loss and car racing from Top Shelf charmed quite a few critics, but not me. Maybe it was the lack of humanity imparted by the character design or the fact that I couldn't force myself to care about the sad sack main character's plight that kept me from enjoying it. Maybe plot-light mid-life crisis stories just don't do it for me right now.

Maybe I shouldn't write anymore about it!

The Brief History of the Dead: a novel by Kevin Brockmeier

This handsomely jacketed book was an enjoyable romp through the world’s last days, but falls just short of a truly memorable experience because of a few missteps. The book opens with this quote from James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me:
“Many African societies divide humans in to three categories: those still alive on the earth, the sasha, and the zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead. They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, whi can call them to mind, create their likenesses in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, the ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead…. Many… can be recalled by name. But they are not the living dead. There is a difference.”
What follows is an exploration of that idea, but one that holds very, very closely with what is described in the quote. Maybe that’s why even with the great writing and inventive plotting that goes into Brockmeier’s story of a dying world and its effect on the afterworld, I couldn’t do more than like it.

Despite not falling in love, I think that there are two things make The Brief History worthwhile: Brockmeier’s take on the afterlife and some element of apocalypse. The afterlife reminds me of a less depressing version of the post-suicide world of Pizzeria Kamikaze. Life after death has similar routines and obligations as being alive and where a dead soul ends up is more of a transition place before oblivion or another unknowable state. My favorite about The Brief History’s afterlife is that there is a newspaper run by a man who can’t stop investigating, even after he loses his readers (and his life).

The apocalypse is experienced by two worlds in this book, which spruces up a somewhat clich├ęd cause of annihilation. What I like even more is that the dead and the living are kept from the true circumstances of their situation by unimaginable events, a great premise that in this instance needed a bit more tension to have maximum impact on the reader. Because of the opening quote the only real tension is supplied by wondering how long it will take for the characters to figure out what the reader already knows—a risky gambit that didn’t work in the book’s favor.

Akin to the lack of plot tension, the book is also missing a sense of challenging this reality to enhance the one the author created. This apocalypse goes down a bit too easy.

Now, whose copy of this did I borrow? Amy Ambulette’s maybe? You can have it back now. (Yeah right! Amy doesn't read blogs anymore!)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pickles!



I always crave pickled onions with my rice and beans. Now I needn't be left wanting. These were pickled with cloves, allspice and a bay leaf.



Carrots pickled with garlic and dill. I needed to do something with these CSA beauties before they turned to mush.

My first time pickling anything certainly turned out surprisingly well. What new things are you trying during this long winter?

new buddies

So, I cleaned up the links a little and added two new ones:

Olduvai is a great book blog with a giant link list. See if you can get away without exploring.

Morbid Anatomy is like a portal into my mind! It's a great resource for creepy and amazing historical medical hoohaery. No only have we read and blogged about a few of the same things, but MA also features an extremely exhaustive link list.

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How about some garden pics?


These are from last week, so the hellebores and daffodil, crocus and tulip shoots are even bigger now.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I am back from Pittsburgh. I had a nice visit with the prog lady in America's most livable city. In fact, if one more person told me how livable the city is, they would have ceased to live. Silly Pburghers, you don't have to sell me a shitload of bridges!

As an aside, jetBlue really is the best airline going. I am so happy that they fly (almost) all of the places I want to go in the US.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

linkular

This frequently updated blog, by a young woman that adopted an older sibling group of three boys, is majorly interesting. If you've ever wanted to know about adoption, parenting, or boys ages 4 through 13, Miserable Bliss is a great resource.
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Speaking of magic, here's a good story about it. Now I am sort of disappointed that I wasn't one of those kids who needed to be pushed to have a hobby.
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Gwen is truly outrageous, as always.

Friday, March 06, 2009

No One Tells Everything by Rae Meadows

A tragic past, a series of quirks and a drinking problem does not a character make. Ok? Ok.

While this book was not terrible, it was nowhere near the deep, psychological novel that the author seemed to be going for. The workings of the plot were transparent, the setting barely a sketch and, as above, the characters, especially the main one and her bartender BFF were barely there.

This was from a group of books for review I got in 2008 that I finished, but couldn’t find enough to say about to really review. I’m not sure why I put this one on tryharder’s list, but there you go.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Oh man, I really liked this book. I bought it on a stressful day of medical tests, where I knew that waiting room stretches would require more distraction than staring at all the fellow waiters and trying to figure out what they were in for.

Though fairies and magic are not my usual things, there are many aspects of Clarke’s giant novel that are. First of all it is huge. When I decide to immerse myself in another world, I like that feeling to last for a long time. Secondly, it contains many, many references to and quotes from equally realized books that are as much of an invention as the main story. I love excerpts from fake books as a device to deepen and expand a story. Thirdly, it is not exactly a fantasy story; it is more like an alternate history where magic and fairies influenced important battles, as well as having a long and lost history of their own.

The story concerns the state of magic in England, which in 1806 where the book opens, is quite dismal. “Gentleman-magicians” had clubs where they discussed the history and minutia of magic, but never, never practiced it. Street magicians performed conjuring tricks and were looked down upon by all serious (i.e. non-practicing) magicians. With the discovery of a magician who both practices and has nice clothes, England goes magic crazy.

Surprisingly the two main characters, Norrell and Strange, magicians, are not very interesting. The effects of their relationship on the secondary characters is much more compelling, as are those characters. You’d think that this would unbalance the narrative but it doesn’t. In fact, this characteristic is familiar from gigantor 19th century novels I’ve read and since Clarke uses the language and conventions of such book, it feels right, though it may cause you to skim a few parts.

I love the fairies as Clarke presents them. They are arrogant, beautiful and basically psychopaths. No sense of right and wrong, only what feels good. They have fractious, warring families, they think nothing of sweeping humans into their world for an evening (or hundreds of years) and they love parties. I was also intrigued by Faerie, the realm. It is a parallel world, reached through established means (such as long-disused faerie roads) or, more frighteningly for humans, by accident or the whim of a fairy. Often a visitor can’t tell that they have crossed into Faerie until something unusual happens, and sometimes not even then. I like this notion, as I often feel adrift in other realms during different parts of my day. Right now I am in Needs To Take A Shower. It stinks here!

There are a few stumbles in the many pages of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, mostly from not-quite-successful attempts at humor. These missteps are very few and far between though and don’t detract from the book overall.

My copy included illustrations by Portia Rosenberg that are simply awful. That, paired with the shoddy binding and Bible-thin pages made this not the best buy in terms of book longevity, but the many hours I spent with it have more than made up for that.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

GAH!

Why oh why do I have to miss Shelley Jackson and Lynn Tillman together in one of my favorite places in NYC?

Since I can't go, you should:
Fiction from Fence Magazine

Monday, March 09, 2009 at 7:00 PM
Housing Works Bookstore Cafe
126 Crosby Street, New York, NY 10012 :: 212-334-3324

Afterwards, you can tell me all about it.

Monday, March 02, 2009

file under

Film, old-timey:
She Blogged By Night

Stacia writes excellent and funny film commentary on movies that you probably haven't seen. She is on hiatus now, but the archives have many, many treats to offer. Already I have a short list of movies that I must see.
At home with my growing tooth and and unfair tingling, internal, I was going to show you the wee flower shoots that have appeared in the garden over the past weeks. Instead there is just a winta wondaland out there, just white covering all the dead plants, strange voodoo items (several whole, white eggs and a set of bird's wings, sans bird), and fallen branches in my yard.

With those wonders and mysteries covered up on such a painful and distracting day, I will turn to books. In particular, the books of 2008. 2009 has been such a good reading year so far that I want to get to those books as soon as I finish up last year.