Dead trees

November 4, 2007

I spend a lot of time staring at screens, so I’m always a little nervous when we head off on a vacation with limited internet connectivity and no television. In a place as beautiful as Zion National Park, it’s hard to care, and I always get a lot of reading done.

Best of the pile of prose was Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Penguin Group). It’s all sloppy and raucous on the surface, but mythic and almost perfectly constructed underneath, and it’s got incredibly memorable characters. For a novel that’s ostensibly about a fat geek who wishes he could get laid, that’s saying something. But Diaz has apparently never met a digression that he couldn’t tweak into something intelligent and thrilling, and his protagonist’s nerdish obsessions are just part of the tapestry. I haven’t had much success with geek tragedy, but this book is an absolute thrill.

Not in the same league as Diaz’s book but wonderfully readable and smart, Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher (St. Martin’s Press) humanizes those irritating culture wars that make us all froth. In it, a sex education teacher pays for a moment of frankness by having an abstinence-only curriculum forced upon her by an activist congregation and a craven school board. Then she finds out that a member of the congregation is the coach of her daughter’s soccer team. Freedom, faith and sex mash together in appealingly messy ways, and the characters are uniformly well-rounded and endearing. It’s nice to see an author strike a balance between “flawed” and “intolerable,” which Perrotta manages quite neatly. There are some easy marks in the cast, and the book is much funnier for it, but there’s an overall generosity to Perrotta’s approach that’s really rewarding. If it sounds like an HBO original picture, it probably will be at some point. Fans of the novels of Stephen McCauley will feel right at home.

And because you have to read some laughably improbable crap while on vacation, I was really happy that my partner had brought a couple of books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child along, The Book of the Dead and The Wheel of Darkness. They both star that most ridiculous of Mary Sues, Special Agent Pendergast, and they’re complete hogwash, but they’re amusing all the same. As in all Preston-Child novels, vague supernatural menaces and staggering authoritarian incompetence conspire to put hundreds of indifferently characterized extras at risk, and only Special Agent Contrivance can save them. How these two authors have managed to avoid being burned in effigy by whatever professional organization exists for museum curators I don’t know, not to mention any secret society that exists for the defense of narrative plausibility. But when your plane has been delayed for two hours and your mind is already running to thoughts of homicide and widespread mayhem, it’s good to have one of their books handy.

I read some comics too, but I’ll get to them later.


Monday linkblogging, etc.

October 22, 2007

J.K. Rowling has revealed that one of the characters from her Harry Potter series of books, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, was gay. It’s nice, but I’d have been more impressed if she’d actually revealed that in the text, ideally before the character died.

On the one hand, she seldom devoted any space to the private lives of the Hogwarts faculty unless it was essential to the narrative (Snape) or factored heavily into a thematically linked subplot (Hagrid and Madame Maxim). On the other, it seems like his one relationship was pretty punitively disappointing. On another hand, I still think poor Tonks was the biggest beard in the fantasy canon, and that anyone who thinks Sirius and Lupin weren’t totally in love is kidding him- or herself.

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While not everyone agrees on the tenor of that Tigra sequence from New Avengers #35, there does seem to be general consensus that Matt Brady’s Newsarama interview with writer Brian Bendis was the kind of tounge-bath seldom seen outside of the cozy, secluded nests mother cats create to welcome their newborns. Here’s one of my favorite responses, and probably the most comprehensive.

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So I don’t seem completely grumpy, I’ll like to two reviews of books published by Dark Horse that made me happy, both the books and the reviews. First is Greg McElhatton’s look at Kazuhiro Okamoto’s far-more-interesting-than-it-sounds Translucent, and second is Ken Haley’s praise for the first two volumes of Adam Warren’s better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be Empowered.

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I love this sauce. I think it would be good on just about any kind of protein, and probably many vegetables as well. (Maybe someday I’ll point you to a healthy recipe. Don’t hold your breath.)

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Speaking of cooking, wow, I gave up too quickly on Kitchen Princess (Del Rey). I thought the first volume was pretty uninspiring, but I caught up with more recent installments via complimentary copies, and it definitely picks up steam. It’s still not life-changing, but there are lots of pretty pictures of food and some reasonably moving story material.


More like “Martyr”

October 7, 2007

I was really looking forward to Hero, Perry Moore’s novel about a teen-aged, gay super-hero. After reading it, I’m a little disappointed by some of the messages I took away from it.

  • Being a gay teen-ager really sucks. Okay, I can’t really argue with that one, because it very often really does suck.
  • Pretty much everyone will judge a gay teen-ager harshly based on their abstract reaction to the kid’s sexual orientation, no matter how responsible or talented or generally decent the kid is. Again, that’s not unheard of, but there’s not much in the way of balance, and it seems like all the authority figures (the basketball coach, the senior super-heroes, the protagonist’s dad) are cut from the same anti-gay cloth.
  • While gay teen-agers can’t expect to get the same opportunities and garden-variety consideration that are automatically bestowed on their apparently straight peers, they can get those opportunities and consideration if they work ten times as hard as their apparently straight peers, though they shouldn’t expect anything in the way of “official” support or encouragement. (On the bright side, the protagonist isn’t ultimately looking for approval or acceptance through his heroic activities. He just wants to do the right thing and make the world better.)
  • The intentions of the book are obviously good, but it’s so polarizing. Almost all of the straight people are judgmental or hypocrites or both, and I found that really depressing. It’s just not the way the world is.


    No, really?

    September 30, 2007

    I have a pet peeve, and I’m wondering if it bothers anyone else. Does it ever irritate you when a publisher puts “A Novel” on the cover of… well… a novel? Like, “Oh, thank heavens, I would have mistaken it for a cookbook that had been mistakenly shelved here in the fiction section if it weren’t for that thoughtful note.” It’s kind of like when a store adds “-pe” to “shop,” just in case nobody could figure out it was supposed to be quaint.

    It’s just me, isn’t it?


    Potter cons

    July 28, 2007

    And here are five things I didn’t love about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. (Again, seriously, if you haven’t read it and are planning to, DON’T PROCEED TO THE JUMP. There are big honking SPOILERS. I MEAN it.):

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    Potter pros

    July 27, 2007

    Here are five things I loved about Harry Potter and the Deatlhy Hallows. (Do I even need to specify that there are spoilers after the jump? Seriously, if you haven’t read it and are planning to, DON’T CLICK. I MEAN it.):

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    Upcoming 7/18

    July 18, 2007

    I’m not going to lie to you. There’s plenty of good stuff arriving at the comic shop this week, but the bulk of my anticipatory energy is reserved for the final book in the Harry Potter series. I’m not going to dress up as a Death Eater and head to the bookstore at midnight, and I’m not going to hunt down purported spoilers on-line, but I’m a big nerd all the same.

    (I haven’t seen the fifth movie yet, because I’m waiting for the crowds to die down. I am really happy to hear from various reviews that the actor who plays Luna is spot-on. I love Luna. That probably means she’s going to die in the last book, doesn’t it? No! I can’t let myself believe that!)

    Okay, now that that nerd-splosion is out of the way, on to the ComicList for Wednesday. And really, there are some delightful books on offer. Since the site itself seems to have exceeded its bandwidth, I’ll point you straight to Diamond instead.

    Jeff Smith’s Shazam and the Monster Society of Evil (DC) has been a real pleasure to read, and it concludes today with the fourth issue. It’s been an extremely clean, purposeful book, and by “clean” I don’t mean “family friendly,” though it’s that, too. I just mean that all of the elements of Smith’s work are neatly and effectively in synch. (For those of you who passed on the individual issues, DC already has information up on the deluxe hardcover, due in October.)

    I’m still looking forward to Byun Byung Ju’s Run, Bong-Gu Run! (NBM), which is set to arrive at the local comic shop today.

    It’s a good week for fans of Fumi Yoshinaga, who has two books arriving: Don’t Say Any More, Darling (Juné) and the third volume of The Flower of Life (Digital Manga Publishing). I don’t really know much about the former, but it’s hard to go too wrong with this particular manga-ka.

    Of course, I’ve been posting about the latter ad nauseum, because it’s awesome. It’s like the high school down the block from Bakery Antique, with Yoshinaga operating on all cylinders and creating a lovely, funny world of exuberantly odd youth. No one quite occupies the same narrative turf as Yoshinaga, gently intersecting young and old, wise and foolish, and funny and sad. It’s just exquisite.


    Blast from the past

    June 7, 2007

    I stopped by Barnes & Noble yesterday to pick up a copy of Otaku USA, and I got a pleasant surprise while looking through the new paperbacks display. First of all, there are new editions of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, which look nice. Second, every one of the new covers announces the imminent arrival of a sequel, Michael Tolliver Lives (from HarperCollins).

    The Tales books were tremendously important to me when I first read them, way back during my college years. They were the first books I’d come across that didn’t present homosexuality as a problem or an issue. They were also the first books I’d read featuring gay and lesbian protagonists that were actually funny. They portrayed people of all sexual orientations living alluringly rounded lives in relative harmony, and their soap operatic structure certainly didn’t hurt. (The first four books were originally serialized in The San Francisco Chronicle.) Reading them was like receiving dispatches from the interpersonal Promised Land.

    I haven’t read them in a long time, so I have no idea how they’ve aged or what my current reaction to them would be. I’m a little reluctant to do so, for fear that their initial impact and my nostalgia for them led me to enshrine them beyond their actual merit. And I’ve found that I haven’t been able to fairly evaluate Maupin’s other novels, Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener, probably owing to my fondness for the Barbary Lane crowd. (I think they suffer from a case of Serious Novelist Syndrome, and sly callbacks to the Tales books didn’t make me any fonder of them.)

    But it will certainly be interesting to reacquaint myself with the Tales cast and to see how Maupin approaches them. And in a summer that doesn’t promise new installments from some of my favorite mystery authors (Elizabeth Peters and Tony Hillerman, for two), the book will nicely fill a gap in my summer reading.


    Vowell sounds

    April 12, 2007

    One of the benefits of living in a university community is a rich range of cultural events – lectures, recitals, and so on. Okay, so most of the time my appreciation of these opportunities is theoretical, as I’ve decided to sit on the couch and make fun of David Caruso’s acting in reruns of CSI: Miami. (Seriously, he’s like watching Danny Kaye try his hand at film noir.) But even I can be motivated to pry myself off the couch from time to time, and a lecture by Sarah Vowell was more than lure enough.

    Vowell is an essayist and radio commentator. I first encountered her on National Public Radio pushing her book, Take the Cannoli. She struck me as a less self-involved David Sedaris (not that his self-involvement is bad – it’s just that it’s inspired too many inferior imitators), and I enjoyed the book a lot. I caught her from time to time on NPR’s This American Life, and I really loved her third book, Assassination Vacation. Like Sedaris, she’s got a funny voice and a wry sense of humor, but unlike Sedaris, she has expansive interests and peculiar but illuminating obsessions. In other words, she’s a big geek, which makes her barbed perceptiveness all the more appealing.

    Last night’s audience was almost precisely what you’d expect – liberals and graduate students, gathered to pay tribute to our nerd princess. She did not disappoint. Her extemporaneous speaking is as delightful as her writing. (Any evening that concludes with a detailed differentiation between apathy and quiet despair is my kind of evening.) When asked who her current presidential candidate of choice was, she thought for a moment and said, “Gee, I’m just so un-picky these days.”

    For whatever reason, I’d passed over The Partly Cloudy Patriot, but the opportunity to get it signed was too good to pass up. It proved, yet again, that I should not be allowed near any level of celebrity, because I always get weird when I actually interact with them. But hey, I have an autographed book by one of my favorite essayists, and I’m sure she wasn’t too alarmed by my complete lack of social skills.

    One thing – I can understand the desire of professors to expand their students’ horizons by requiring them to attend events like this. And maybe a small handful of them come away better informed and more curious than they were before. But for the most part, no one is happy with this arrangement. The students are clearly unhappy, judging by their sighing, talking and compulsive peeks at their cellular phones to see if that undoubtedly life-changing text message has arrived at last. And the people who attended the event in question are unhappy if they have the bad fortune of sitting next to the students and are forced to try and tune out their ostentatious ennui. Just make them watch a video in class, or something.

    But back to Vowell. Wikipedia has a terrific collection of audio and video links to her appearances on various radio and television programs. If you listen to only one, make it this episode of This American Life, where she confesses to actually enjoying marching band (see? big geek!) in a performance that led David Sedaris to insist that “She must be destroyed.” Oh, and she said her next book will be about the Puritans. I can’t wait.


    Death in the stacks

    March 25, 2007

    I was at the library the other day, and I noticed that some thoughtful employee had posted a short list of mystery series recommendations. This person is clearly my long-lost book twin, because the sleuth categories included chefs, pet owners and librarians. (There was no category for gay sleuths, but I’ll let it slide.)

    Being in a Dewey Decimal kind of place and riding a wave of library love, I opted for Charlaine Harris’s Last Scene Alive, starring small-town librarian Aurora Teagarden. While the book has a lot of promising elements – a generally anti-social heroine, the promise of a gossipy community setting, and the opportunity to see a librarian apply her considerable intellect and organizational skills to violent crime – they didn’t really come together for me.

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