Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Walking Dead, Volume 18: What Comes After by Robert Kirkman, Charles Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2013)

Oh yes, my friends, we are back in the Walking Dead game with The Walking Dead, Volume 18: What Comes After by Robert Kirkman, Charles Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2013).

After the death blast extreme of Volume 17, this one calms down into more talk and less walk. And with new horrible villain Negan behind the talk box, that more talk is great! Seriously, I love that cussing egocentric cruel jerkbag when he starts talking.

Rick continues to tread water as a character, but his son Carl really starts coming into his own in this volume, and I'm interested to see where that one-eyed ragamuffin decides to do next...

Also: post-zombie apocalypse tiger introduction!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (2012)

A friend from work lent me The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (2012) because she knew I liked depressing books, and I'm also not averse to reading Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. While there is certainly plenty to be depressed about in Johnson's exploration of the North Korean dictatorship, I'd argue that the book is ultimately uplifting if you look at it in the right light.

The novel is divided into two parts, in the first, "The Biography of Jun Do," we follow our protagonist on his journey through the North Korean machine. He starts as an orphan (or is he?), then a soldier training to fight in tunnels under the DMZ, then a kidnapper, then being trained to learn English, then a radio operator on a boat, before falling into the biggest assignment of his life so far, serving as an interpreter on an unofficial diplomatic trip to a Senator's ranch in Texas. Whew.

Through these positions, we learn a lot about the structure of Jun Do's life in North Korea, and even more about Jun Do himself. We gradually accept that fortunes can be made and lost on the whim of authority, that appearances are everything, and that the ability to tell a convincing story is more important than the truth. After he makes it back from Texas, Jun Do is sent to a prison mine, the kind that no one ever comes back out of alive, and that is the last we hear from him.

Until the second part: "The Confessions of Commander Ga." An interrogator has a man in his booth who is Commander Ga, a North Korean hero, a cruel man, the head of the prison mine system, the husband of the national actress, Sun Moon, and a rival of Kim Jung Il. This man has been called Commander Ga by the Dear Leader, so that's who he his, but that isn't who he has always been. The story of how our little John Doe became one of the most powerful men in North Korea, and how he ended up in the interrogation chamber, forms the heart of the book.

Johnson weaves a powerful, fast-moving story and skillfully plays the humanity and individualism of his characters against the unsmiling conformity of the state machine. There is no denying that the isolated country of North Korea is a fascinating subject, and I found myself getting online to find glimpses of state-released photographs and journalistic impressions of the closed off country. Because North Korea is so unknowable, and Johnson is not Korean (he went on a brief state-sponsored trip after he started writing the novel, but also researched the country extensively and interviewed refugees) we shouldn't rely on this story as a "true" vision of what life in North Korea is like for its citizens, but Johnson's impressions and imaginings give us an authentic-feeling (and bone chilling) view of what it might be like. As the book progresses the character of Jun Do takes on Forrest Gump-like qualities of being in the right place at the right time, and the plot nearly veers into the territory of science fiction, but Johnson's well-earned grounding of his characters and their goals keeps the novel from going off the rails.

This is not a cheery book by any means, but a fascinating and well-written one.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Eternal Savage by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)

Time for some more Burroughs! The Eternal Savage by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914) is a one-off / sort-of-Tarzan-spin-off that was serialized in 1914/1915 in All-Story Weekly and originally titled The Eternal Lover. It forms a pair with The Mad King, which I haven't read, but which sounds very fun and quite a bit different from many of Burroughs other books.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first, Victoria and Barney Custer, a brother and sister from Beatrice, Nebraska (!!) are staying with Lord Greystoke and his wife in Africa as part of a hunting party. Those in the know will remember that Lord Greystoke is Tarzan. Her whole life, Victoria has been frightened of earthquakes and visited with dreams about a hunky, half-naked cave man that she feels must be her only love. While the group is out hunting, the countryside is hit by a large earthquake which happens to open up a cave that was sealed by a similar earthquake 100,000 years ago. Oddly enough, the occupant of the cave, a hunky, half-naked cave man named Nu, Son of Nu, is still alive and very confused by his new surroundings. A combination of fate and a series of misunderstandings lead the time-crossed lovers together, then apart, then together again, and ultimately Victoria needs to decide if she should follow her heart and stay with Nu or reject him and stay with her brother and his rich friends.

But then!: Another earthquake happens and we are rocked back to 100,000 years ago where Victoria's counterpart, Nat-ul is waiting for her lover Nu to return to her with the head of a saber-toothed tiger that he promised to defeat before they became mates. A complicated combination of fate and a series of misunderstandings lead the lovers together, then apart, then together again in a very familiar pattern. Interspersed with the misunderstandings are lots of lion attacks, chases, and sniffing the air for the scent of one's mate.

In the end we are met with yet another earthquake and a slightly disappointing return to Victoria's life where the whole thing (spoiler alert) was just a dream (double spoiler alert) OR WAS IT! 

In many ways, this plot is similar to The Monster Men, which I read a couple months ago: the smart and spunky heroine who still needs a lot of saving, the tough and straightforward hero who hasn't been corrupted by modernity, lots of lots of chasing and fighting, etc. In fact, the plot is similar to a lot of Burroughs books and a lot of serialized adventure novels in general, but who am I to argue with a successful formula?

Like much of Burroughs, one needs to accept a certain amount of sexism and racism with the story, and I could see an entire dissertation being written on gender roles and the issue of race in this book alone (for example, it is mentioned multiple times that Nu is white, although he was living in Africa 100,000 years ago and the current inhabitants are certainly black). The reader also has to suspend her disbelief when, for example, Nu is staying at Tarzan's house (Tarzan of the jungle who can speak to the apes and all that) and there are zero interactions between the two of them and not even any mention of how Tarzan might be able to help out with Nu's situation.

I'll leave you with this gem to help you start your dissertation: "Such reveries made Nu very sad, for he loved Nat-ul just as you or I would love -- just as normal white men have always loved -- with a devotion that placed the object of his affection upon a pedestal before which he was happy to bow down and worship. His passion was not of the brute type of the inferior races which oftentimes solemnizes the marriage ceremony with a cudgel and ever places the woman in the position of an inferior and a chattel." (p. 65)

[read the whole thing here!]

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy (1887)

"There was now a distinct manifestation of morning in the air, and presently the bleared white visage of a sunless winter day emerged like a dead-born child. The woodlanders everywhere had already bestirred themselves, rising this month of the year at the far less dreary time of absolute darkness."

For heaven's sake, how could you not just love Thomas Hardy to pieces. Hardy's The Woodlanders (1887) is my next selection from Harold Bloom's Western Canon list, and while I had to get myself over a hump of deciding to start it (why is it so hard to get started on a 19th century novel?), once I did I couldn't stop.

This is the story of the tragic romance of Giles Winterborne and Grace Melbury. They grew up together in the small village of Little Hintock and for a complicated but good-intentioned reason, Grace's father, one of the most well-to-do in the village, had planned for the two of them to marry, even though Giles was a little rough around the edges. After sending Grace away to school and seeing how refined and urban she seemed when she got home, however, Mr. Melbury decides she shouldn't marry beneath her and instead plots for her to marry the new doctor in town, Edred Fitzpiers, a learned man with a good name and not that much money of his own. Grace is sweet and smart, but also very obedient, and does just what her father says. Unfortunately, Fitzpiers is not that constant of a husband and starts an affair with a wealthy widow, Mrs. Charmond, that tears his young household apart.

Like any good tragedy, there are plenty of misunderstandings, missed opportunities, misinterpretations, and ultimately, death. There is also quite a bit of humor, some amazing descriptions of the woods and their rustic inhabitants, and a surprising amount of candid talk about sex and adultery. This one is less well-known than Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd or Tess of the D'Ubrervilles, but it is a rewarding and entertaining read and worth a second look.

[Read the whole thing for free as an e-book here. Yay for the public domain!]

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Vacuum Cleaner: A History by Carroll Gantz (2012)

I requested this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program on the basis of some other everyday-technology-specific histories I'd read that really managed to draw the reader in despite the apparent dullness of their topic. While Carroll Gantz's The Vacuum Cleaner: A History (2012) didn't meet all my expectations for an exciting read, it did manage to pull me along and teach me quite a bit about vacuum cleaners and the history of floor cleaning technology.

Gantz starts with pre-electric floor cleaning, including rug beating, carpet sweeping, and the most adorable sounding two-person floor cleaner where one person works a set of bellows with their feet while the other person moves the brush around to clean the room. When things get motorized, they start with large steam engines that live on a horse drawn cart in the street with nozzles and brushes brought in through the windows for a thorough cleaning. For many years rich people and hotels would have a large gasoline powered central vacuum engine in the cellar with attachments coming off at each floor for suction cleaning. We move through the slow electrification of the country in the 20s-40s, and then the post-war boom of electric gadgets and efficient housewives. Eventually we get all the way to the modern trinity of the Dustbuster, the Dyson, and the Roomba.

Gantz is well-qualified to write this book, since he is the man who designed the Dustbuster in the 1980s and helped push Black and Decker to hand-held-floor-cleaner stardom. The book is at its most interesting when Gantz discusses the history and influence of industrial design on modern life, and at its most dull when he indulges his need to itemize every vacuum make, model, and manufacturer in mind-numbing detail. Gantz has a pretty readable writing style with an occasionally goofy twist borne from a little too much research (for example: "To encourage, benefit, and provide communication opportunities to these somewhat unconventional enthusiasts, the Vacuum Cleaner Collectors Club was co-founded by Robert Tabor and John Lucia in 1983, the same year that Brooks Robinson (b. 1937), former third basement of the Baltimore Orioles, nicknamed 'The Human Vacuum Cleaner,' was coincidentally inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.")

The book is well-illustrated with black and white photographs of vacuum and floor cleaners as well as patent and design drawings. Gantz gets into a little bit of the history of advertising vacuum cleaners, and I would have liked to see more of that as well as some representative advertisements in the illustrations.

I'm not going to recommend that everyone go out and buy this, but if you have a propensity for nerding out on a topic and a general interest in floor cleaning technology, this is probably the book for you. I can't tell you how much more attention I've been paying to those Dyson ads....

Monday, November 18, 2013

Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories edited by Michael Sims (2010)

My sweet Dr. Mystery got me a copy of Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories edited by Michael Sims* (2010) for my birthday last year, and since we are almost to my birthday this year, I figured I ought to read the thing.

This is a solid collection of vampire stories, both Victorian and near-Victorian, and is readable as much for the supernatural content as it is for a glimpse into historic popular fiction. Sims gives us a solid introduction to the book as a whole as well as brief introductory essays for each story in the book giving some information on the author and context to the story itself.

Most of these stories were new to me, although I had read Fitz-James O'Brien's "What Was It?" before (and OMG if you haven't ever read it, click on that link and check it out. So excellent and weird and sad and funny.) The other stories in the book feature both male and female and old school and new school vampires. There are a lot of academics making lonely journeys into tombs with ominous histories in order to study ancient frescoes (bad idea), and a lot of men and women in the prime of life quickly losing their vitality and dying. There are a few goofy stories and some serious potboilers, but the collection also includes a good number of legitimately freaky tales. Definitely recommended.

*I've read one other Michael Sims book, Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form (2003), which I really liked and wrote about in 2005 when I was very first starting to write book reviews on this blog (hey, remember when I used to write other stuff too -- those were the days...). And then, because there wasn't much on the internet in those days, Sims found my post and wrote me a nice e-mail about it, which I also wrote about.** All this goes to say that I'm predisposed to like the editor of this anthology, even though Josh did not remember that the author had contacted me personally eight years ago.

** In the link above there is also a super cute mention of Amanda linking to me from her Receptionista blog. If you are reading this, you seriously seemed like a celebrity to me in 2005! For anyone following that saga, I have met Amanda in person since then and can confirm that she is very fun and nice and I still read her blog and Tumblr all the time!

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Habibi by Craig Thompson (2011)

So my other new book club is one a friend is putting together where we will read nothing but graphic novels (yay!), and our first selection is Habibi by Craig Thompson (2011). After reading Goodbye, Chunky Rice, Blankets, and Carnet de Voyage I knew that I would not be able to resist anything else that Thompson should ever choose to draw and write. And although it took me a couple years, this book club has finally given me the push to jump into Thompson's most recent book, Habibi, a long epic story of two orphans in a fictional Islamic country.

Dodola is 9 and Cham is 3 when they meet for the first time and she claims him as her brother in a slave market. When she escapes, she takes him with her and they live in an impoverished but happy peace out in the desert for six years before their partnership is brutally snatched away from them.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is absolutely gorgeous. The size and weight of it, the detail on the cover, and Thompson's wonderful drawings dare you to immerse yourself in the book and not come up for air until you've finished it.

The second thing to say about this book is that it is just as brutal as it is beautiful, and if you read it all in one chunk, you might have some kind of nervous breakdown. When I checked this one out from the library, the woman behind the desk said that she loved the book so much but that she could never read it again because it just hurt too much. I can understand how she felt, although the complexity of Thompson's drawings and story make me want to give this one another read where I can pay more attention to the page and less to the plot.

While some readers have taken issue with Thompson's portrayal of sexuality and Islamic culture, I think this book shows his own immersion in an unfamiliar world and his desire to share all he learned about the words and faith of Islam with the graphic-novel-reading West.

Finally: no one draws a naked woman quite like Craig Thompson.

[Check out some sketches and in-progress drawings here!]

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946)

Okay, so I've joined another book club (actually, two other book clubs, but more on that in another post). This new book club is a mean and lean group of 3-5 friends who will get together to read and discus depressing books of fiction and non-fiction. We've dubbed it the Debbie Downer Book Club, and I'm pretty excited about it.

Our first read truly qualifies for the book club theme. Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946) is a plainspoken account of the experiences of six survivors of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima both before, during, and after the bomb fell. Hersey wrote the piece in four sections that were initially supposed to be published in four consecutive issues of The New Yorker, but when he read the work as a whole, editor William Shawn decided to devote the entire August 31, 1946 issue to Hersey's piece. Shortly thereafter the piece was published as a book which became a bestseller and has never since gone out of print. In 1985, Hersey went back to Hiroshima and followed up on the lives of his six protagonists, adding a fifth chapter to later printings of the book (which I didn't read, since my library had the 1946 edition).

I'm not sure why I had never heard of this influential book, and I'm so glad my book club members brought it to my attention. Hersey's straightforward writing style does nothing to hide the horror of that day and the direct impact the actions of the United States had on the people of Hiroshima. Small details and hints of every day life creep in here and there and are met by radiation sickness, melted eyeballs, vaporized people, and other unimaginable horrors. The cultural reactions of the Japanese to the tragedy are fascinating and surprising, and while the group of survivors that Hersey decides to follow are diverse, their experiences are relatable and moving.

Everyone should read this book. It's short and engrossing and widely available. If you'd like to check out the copy and don't mind reading things electronically, get yourself over to the Internet Archive where they have it available in a bunch oh formats, including PDF, EPUB, and Kindle.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century by Witold Rybczynski (1999)

My friend Jennifer loaned me her copy of A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century by Witold Rybczynski (1999) before our trip to New York this summer. I didn't get a chance to crack the book before we left, but I read it just after we came back. This is one of those books with a topic that I wouldn't have really thought I'd be that into, but which ended up being fascinating. Definitely recommended.

Rybczynski's sub title "and America in the 19th Century" is no joke. This is certainly a biography, and the reader gets a full picture of Olmsted and his influence on the landscape of the United States and the formation of landscape architecture as a profession, but there is so much more than that: Civil War, 19th century gentlemen, German settlers in Texas, European tours, early New York commerce, the Chicago World's Fair, and just about everything else that a New England man of property and good breeding could be expected to dabble in.

Rather than overwhelming the reader with detail and context, the author expertly weaves Olmsted's personal narrative with everything that is going on around him into a nicely readable and extremely educational text. Pick this one up, dudes!

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Monster Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1913)

The Monster Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1913) is a very enjoyable one-off novel that combines a classic horror set-up with Burroughs' eye for adventure.

Professor Maxon is a brilliant and ambitious scientist who has discovered the secret to creating life, although he hasn't quite perfected it yet. After a harrowing time disposing of a body of a failed not-actually-human human in the States, Maxon decides to take his beautiful daughter Virginia and a newly hired assistant, Dr. Van Horn, to a deserted Indonesian island where he can work on his experiments without raising any questions. To help them set up shop they bring a whole gang of natives from another island, as well as their extremely resourceful Chinese cook, Sing Lee. Maxon doesn't tell Virginia what he is up to, but lays everything out for Dr. Van Horn who, in the midst of a secret escape from some unpleasant circumstances, is happy to sign on.

The experiments continue, with Maxon creating a whole stable of unsuitable Frankensteins who he uncreatively names by the order of their appearance as Number 1, Number 2, etc. until he hits the jackpot with the perfectly beefcakey specimen of Number 13. By this point Maxon has gone completely crazy and divulges his ultimate plan of breeding a perfect man to mate with his lovely daughter.

At this point, everyone wants to get with Virginia: including Van Horn, Number 13, the chief of a tribe from near-by Borneo. This lust for the beautiful woman carries us into the second half of the novel where Number 13 leads a band of his deformed brothers against the various tribes of Borneo in a quest to rescue the woman he loves (and the only woman he has ever seen), while Van Horn shows his evil side and tries to get to Virginia and her family money before the monster can make his move.

This was one of Burroughs' early books, published just a year after he delivered the one-two punch of Tarzan of the Apes and A Princess of Mars (on an unrelated note, did you know Burroughs was 35 when he published his first novel!). You can tell that he is finding his path, but regardless of your love for John Carter or Tarzan, it is just fun to read some Burroughs that isn't a part of one of his landmark series. There are some racial stereotypes to crawl over (although, surprisingly, not as many as you would think), but even with that I can't believe this one was never made into a movie.

Want to read the whole thing for free right now? Well, thanks to the power of the public domain, you can do just that right here.

[And if you are a nerd who wonders this kind of thing, I believe the edition I have, from which comes this amazing cover, is the 1963 mass-market paperback by Ace Books.]

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)

For our latest read, my wonderful book club (go DAFFODILS!) decided to read something from a decade we had not yet explored, the 1980s. We had a democratic vote and ended up selecting a book that I suggested, and that I had read before, back in college, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989).

When I read this book almost 15 years ago, I thought it was amazing, and I still think it is very very good, although with my intense memories of how great it was I set myself a pretty high bar. The Remains of the Day tells the story of Mr. Stevens, a man who has been the butler in a wealthy and formerly well-respected house in England for over 30 years. His former employer, Lord Darlington, has died, and Stevens "came with the house" when a wealthy American recently bought it.

His new boss does the very American thing of telling Stevens to take a little road trip while he will be out of the country and not needing any buttling. He even loans Stevens his car and gives him a little traveling money. Stevens sets out to explore the English countryside, and to visit a former housekeeper who served during the reign of Lord Darlington, Miss Kenton.

Mr. Stevens narrates the book and takes us back and forth between his current travels and his memories of his years of service, the past grandeur of the house, and his colleague, Miss Kenton. Stevens is a classic unreliable narrator, not because he is crazy or deceptive, but because his own rigid codes of behavior don't allow him to see what has been happening around him, both with the people in his life and with his employer and his ill-informed dabblings in international politics.

Ishiguro uses Stevens' unreliability to slowly reveal to us what has happened in the past and what kind of man Stevens really is. That authorial control, the narrative voice, and the perfect structure of the novel are what makes this a great one, even if the ultimate message is a little disappointingly simple.

And just in case I've made this sound like some kind of boring writing exercise, be assured that the book has a lot of humor in it (like Stevens studiously studying the art of bantering, or Stevens trying to teach a young gentleman about the birds and the bees as ordered by his employer). This is a book that is both literary and fast-moving, and if it leaves the reader feeling a little cold, I think we can just blame that on Steven's surfeit of dignity.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Family Handyman Home Improvement edited by Ken Collier (2012)

In my never-ending quest to become the perfect handy homeowner, I have read through yet another repair/renovation guide, this time the rather awkwardly titled The Family Handyman Home Improvement edited by Ken Collier (2012).

This book series is basically an annual compendium of selected articles that had previously been published in The Family Handyman magazine, loosely organized by topic. Each stand-alone article is well-illustrated and walks the theoretical handyman through the necessary tools and steps to get the job done.

I could see myself undertaking some of these projects, but more than a how-to guide, I like this book because it gives me an idea of what is possible and what isn't, and what questions I should be asking when I inevitably call my handyma'am to come make the repairs for me. No surprises here, and certainly not a complete guide to improving your home, but worth reading and keeping around as a reference.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Time Out Shortlist New York City (2012)

The lovely Jennifer LaSuprema loaned me yet another NYC travel guide before our big trip, the Time Out Shortlist New York City (2012). I have a weird love for travel guides, and I hadn't ever read a Time Out guide before, so I was interested to see how the series would roll.

This was a readable and very full introduction to all things NYC and all things 2012. A good mix of the tried and true and the up-to-the-moment, the guide also includes easy to read maps and lists of cultural, shopping, and food-based attractions.

 I did read the whole book before I went (I'm a completest nerd), but I didn't take it out much while I was there. Still, I feel like this guide, in tandem with the National Geographic walking guide and some internet research, gave me a good foundation for the NYC trip.

And the trip was so much fun! Photographic evidence here, if you are into that sort of thing...

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan (2004)

Our dear friend Alex thoughtfully gave us a copy of Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan (2004) as a housewarming present shortly after we moved into our new house with its increasingly hopeless seeming rat problem. It took us about eight months to figure out the solution (back flow valve in the main sewer line into the house!), and since then we have been completely rat free (9 months and counting!). Now that the rats are really really gone, I felt like I could finally handle this book.

Sullivan spent a year observing rats in a single alley in the financial district of Manhattan. What originally started as a magazine article was bulked up into a book-length work that covers the history of rats in New York, the history of the plague, the profession and life of the exterminator, and Sullivan's own many observations on the activities and preferences of his particular alley rats. His observations were interrupted by the attacks on the World Trade Center, and the book ends up exploring the effects of the collapse of the towers on both the people of New York and her rats.

Sullivan occasionally gets a little cute, and his comparisons of the activities of people to the activities of rats can get a little dull, but ultimately this is a pretty fascinating book, regardless of your feelings for rodents. As much a history of New York City as an exploration of a single animal, the wide-reaching nature of Sullivan's reporting is a real strength and keeps the book from getting too bogged down in a single corner.

Coincidentally, I'm about to head on my first trip to New York City (so excited!), so I'll be on the lookout for any rodents of unusual size. If nothing else, this book has given me some perspective on the little animals that drove me crazy for two thirds of last year.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Walking New York: The Best of the City by Katherine Cancila (2012)

The lovely Jennifer LaSuprema* loaned me this copy of Walking New York: The Best of the City by Katherine Cancila (2012) in preparation for an upcoming trip.

I've never been to New York City before and this was a nice overview of the different neighborhoods and main attractions. I tend to be pretty map-based, and this gave me a good sense of where things were in relation to other things and how Manhattan in general was laid out.

The book is published by National Geographic and is very nicely laid out and illustrated. It's also a perfect size for tossing in your bag before heading out into the city. I can't wait to try this one out on the ground and see how the recommendations hold up.

* Go to Jennifer's Austin Fanzine Project page right now and check out the cool work she is doing to crowdsource the transcription of local fanzines from the 1990s (starting with her own Geek Weekly). It's cool and fun and you can help!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

My Brain is Hanging Upside Down by David Heatley (2008)

I was at the library the other week without much of a plan and started browsing through the graphic novels section for something to take home with me when My Brain is Hanging Upside Down by David Heatley (2008) caught my eye and I decided to take a pretty low-risk chance on an author I'd never heard of before.

Heatley's book is a memoir in comic form. He covers some big topics: sex, race, mother, father, family tree, and fatherhood, and although he is oftentimes brutally revealing about his own life, the mixture of humor and honestly keeps the book from drifting too far into either "big themes" or navel gazing territory.

Helping things along is Heatley's informal drawing style which is a perfect match for the often emotional content of the narrative. Delivered in a combination of small, memory-driven panels and lush full-color spreads illustrating Heatley's dreams, the full package gives us a sympathetic (and somewhat voyeuristic) view of Heatley and his family. This is worth checking out for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the adorable pink bars over the many many many penises in the Sex section.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Beach at Galle Road: Stories from Sri Lanka by Joanna Luloff (2012)

The Beach at Galle Road: Stories from Sri Lanka, the debut book by Joanna Luloff (2012), was one of my recent finds through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. I've found that debut short story collections can be pretty hit or miss, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this one fell on the hit side of the equation.

Luloff gives us a collection of loosely interconnected stories that can either stand alone or be read as a single piece. The wide variety of protagonists (including old women, young mothers, teenage girls, little boys, adult men, and young American men and women serving in the Peace Corp in Sri Lanka) adds variety and depth to the book, but a theme of isolation, longing, and regret ties the wildly different lives of our different narrators together.

Luloff's book takes place in pre-tsunami Sri Lanka, much of it right in the middle of the breathtakingly violent civil war between the Sinhalese government and the Tamil insurgency. While there are elements of humor, love, and peace throughout the book, the circumstances of the country crawl deep into the lives of the characters. The arc of the book moves us masterfully into the final perfectly tragic story -- one of the most upsetting in the book -- where the lead character ultimately earns her twisted triumph, but it doesn't make the reader quite as happy as it makes her.

Definitely recommended, and I'll be very interested to see what Luloff does next.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Lost Austin by John H. Slate (2012)

I may be a little biased since acclaimed author and archivist for the City of Dallas, John Slate, is a close personal friend, but I'm pretty sure his book, Lost Austin (2012) is one of the best collections of historic photographs ever compiled.

The aim of this book is to document the buildings, businesses, and institutions that have been replaced, destroyed, faded away, or superseded in Austin's move from a small settlement on the Colorado river to the 11th biggest metropolitan area in the country.

John was helped out by the fabulous historic photograph collections at the Austin History Center and other local repositories, along with his own memories as a native Austinite. The real strength of this collection is in its sense of balance -- we see old old 19th century Austin buildings along with local hot spots from the 1970s and 1980s that lost the fight to development. We get a good mix of the important Hispanic and African American Austin heritage that has influenced our city in countless (sometimes ignored) ways. And we see both architectural and design marvels and the people who used to live with those buildings every day.

If you've lived in Austin for any amount of time, a common refrain is how great things used to be if you had been here X years ago (five, ten, twenty, fifty -- it was always better before than it is now). If you've ever gotten trapped by the blanket of Austin nostalgia, this book can help you catch up on what you've been missing, even if it hasn't been around since the 1920s!

[If you'd like to check out some cool archival pictures, take a look at the Austin History Centers online photographic collections here. You can keep track of John's book signings here. And if you are in Austin, run, don't walk, to your nearest bookstore to pick up your own copy of Lost Austin. Or order it here!]

Friday, July 05, 2013

Andersen's Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Mrs. E. V. Lucas and Mrs. H. B. Paull (circa 1953?)

Being half Danish, I've always had a soft spot for fairy tale-er Hans Christian Andersen. About  a year ago I won a big box of old books through the Forgotten Bookmarks blog (such a fun blog -- definitely worth adding to your reader), and in it was a copy of Andersen's Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Mrs. E. V. Lucas and Mrs. H. B. Paull (circa 1953*).

This was an interesting collection because while it featured some familiar stories ("The Ugly Duckling," "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," "The Shepherdess and the Sweep," and one of my all-time favorites "The Snow Queen"), most of the 22 stores in the book were new to me. Many of these feature important (and harsh) lessons on the importance of being humble and kind. We get a lot of inanimate objects (like the tin soldier or the porcelain shepherdess) acting like humans and learning those lessons for us. My favorite new-to-me story in the collection is the rather odd tale "The Old Street Lamp." Do yourself a favor and click on that link -- it will only take a few minutes to read it, and how could you possibly resist a story that begins "Have you ever heard the story of the old Street Lamp? It's really not very amusing, but you might listen to it for once."

Oh, and if you really want to have some fun, click here for some amazing illustrations of Andersen's stories from 1920s Japan. 

* It is hard to pinpoint a publication year on this undated volume, since this translation has been reproduced about a million times. It was originally published in 1945 (although this isn't the first edition since it isn't illustrated), and there is a dedication ("1953 - Carole from Mother"), so this volume must have come out sometime between 1945 and 1953. I think this was originally published as a set with a volume of Grimm's fairy tales. And that's all I had patience to find -- I'm an archivist, not a cataloguer!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain (2012)

This might surprise you, but the archives / library profession tends to draw a lot of introverts. It's true! And because of that, Susan Cain's new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (2012) has become de facto required reading among my colleagues and friends.

Cain synthesizes scientific and sociological research, case studies, and personal anecdotes into an exploration of the introvert/extrovert continuum in school, romantic relationships, work, parenthood, and life in general. 
I'm a definite introvert who has always talked a lot (some might say too much) and loudly (maybe too loudly) and who doesn't mind small talk and meeting new people. I've always felt before like my talkativeness might invalidate my introvert card, but reading Cain's book has given me an appreciation for all the different flavors of introversion out there.
The book also points out how the deck is stacked against introverts in modern America -- in the workplace, the media, and our school system, extroversion is seen as a positive and introversion as something to be hidden and improved. Cain describes study after study that shows that a more balanced system ends up being more successful in every situation. Make room for the introverts, jerks!
A few qualms: Some of the sections seem a little hurried; the chapter about introverts in other cultures that only focused on Asians seemed to delve a little into "all Asians are super smart" territory; I feel like she missed a chance to talk about personality and gender (that introverted tendencies are more often encouraged or tolerated in women than men); and I wish she spent more time exploring how introverts interact online (I know some of the quietest people I know are the biggest posters on Facebook).  
Still, I enjoyed reading this book and I feel like it gave me some insight into my own personality and into the personalities of the introverts and extroverts that I love, am related to, work with, and encounter. Even if you aren't a librarian or an introvert, this is worth picking up.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin (2007)

Our latest plan for the fabulous DAFFODILS book club was to read something that wasn't sad or tragic. Now, at first glance one might think that a memoir by a world-famous comedian would fit that bill, but while Born Standing Up by Steve Martin (2007) certainly has a lot of comedy in it, there is (like there is with a lot of comedians) also a lot of crappy childhood, self-doubt, and depression in there to back it up.

This biography covers Martin's life from his childhood through the filming of The Jerk and the self-imposed ending of his stand up career. Martin was born in Waco but grew up in California and had the extremely Californian first job of selling programs at Disneyland when he was ten. His interest in magic lead him from that auspicious beginning to working in one of the magic stores at the park demonstrating tricks to bring in customers and make sales. As he grew, his urge to perform grew with him and when he graduated from high school he took a job performing in the melodramas at Knott's Berry Farm and performing his vaudeville-like comedy/banjo/magic act at small clubs in the area. As the counterculture grew in the 1960s, Martin's interest in expanding and changing his comedy changed accordingly. After numerous false starts and dashed hopes and thousands and thousands of shows on the road, Martin built up a solid audience and eventually landed the spots on the Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live that would rocket him into fame and ultimately seal the casket on his stand up career.

Martin's biography gives us a lot of detail and a certain amount of introspection, but also carefully holds the reader at a safe distance. Steve Martin is not an open, revealing man, even when he is trying to explore his own past. This private nature makes the revealing parts of the book more meaningful than they would be in a standard tell-all celebrity biography, and in the end his reserve makes me like him even more.

And for a little taste of the good stuff, check this out:

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age, Volume 1 by Michael Stutz (2011)

I got a copy of Circuits of the Wind: A Legend of the Net Age, Volume 1 by Michael Stutz (2011) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Somehow, its algorithm looked into my past and realized that I was once a modemer and that parts of this novel might click with me.

Stutz gives us the story of Raymond Valentine, his childhood, his family, his hobbies, his life, and the impact that the new-on-the-scene home computer had on all of them. Volume one starts us at the beginning, with a young Raymond fascinated by telephones, experimenting with chemicals, and immersing himself in books. Soon video games and then home computers hit the scene, and Raymond knows he must have one. He fills notebooks with practice programs before he ever gets a computer of his own, and once he does his friend's parents are asking him for help and advice. And then he gets his modem hooked up. And after hours of phreaking the system to get the codes to make free long-distance calls, the world's BBSs are his and he is no longer the geeky guy at school with no friends, instead he is The Wanderer with lots of friends and secrets, online.

I was certainly no mega-geek, but my family got a Commodore VIC-20 in the early 80s and my sisters and I spent a lot of time carefully typing in programs to get a little ball to bounce around the TV screen and playing shareware games from audio cassettes (I distinctly remember being fascinated by one that analyzed your biorhythms even though I had no idea what a biorhythm even was). Later I moved on to text based adventure games (Go left. Get trunk. Look trunk. Get key. Syntax error.), then Prodigy, and then, when I was about 15, I discovered it: modeming.

There was a local BBS in Lincoln, where I am from, called Cyberspace. It had ten lines, which meant 10 people could be on at once. You could chat live with the other people who were online or read and contribute to discussion boards. They also had some basic games, and a once a week live trivia that was hard to get into since the lines would all fill up. My handle was Omar (named after Omar and the Howlers, but mostly because I thought the name was funny). It kind of hid the fact that I was a girl, which sometimes worked to my advantage. By the time I was 16 a bunch of Cyberspace modemers would get together for midnight coffee on Saturday nights. We got kicked out of two different Perkins restaurants, and eventually moved to a rather shitty diner by the airport and later a late-night cool coffee shop downtown. I was working at a Barnes and Noble at the time and I'd get off at midnight and head straight to modemer coffee. I was in heaven -- all these people were friendly and fun and nothing like the people in my high school or my family. I was one of the only women and by far the youngest person, but I'd usually go with a good male friend who was a couple years older than me and I never had anything wildly inappropriate happen. When Stutz described Raymond's feelings of belonging and knowing something that his friends at school didn't know, I knew exactly what he meant.

However, while Stutz can bring back the era and write some compelling characters, he often gets lost in a lyrical narrative style that does not do his novel any favors:

The men we knew so many years ago as boys are far away. With a hand we wave to nothing but the wind, our cries have been deserted by the deaf, the blind will never see; a lion sleeps in gloom and there is a wounded whale plunging far below the ocean depths. (p. 169).

There was a change and it was sensed in confounding, unspoken ways: it was in the steady tick of time, it was in a speck of tockled time that ticked, and it was in the scattered moments that formed the broken sediment of ages -- the little things that slipped away, and sunk, and had drifted down into the rimings of a dark and deeper past. (p. 203)

In fact, the first chapter of the book is pages and pages of this lyrical style and I almost had to put the whole thing down. I'm glad I persevered, because there is a lot of good here, but I wish that Stutz had had an editor that would call him on his poetic prose and get him to tone it down a notch.

One other quibble: Raymond grows up in a state called Sohola, which is obviously Ohio (a teacher even refers to shooting of protesting students at "Sohola's Duke State University"). I don't have any idea why Stutz made up a fake state name when the rest of the book takes place in reality, and none of the other states have fake names.

Still, if you can get past a sprinkling of purple prose, this book is worth checking out if you have some memories of life before the World Wide Web. Not strongly recommended, but it did help scratch an itch I didn't even know I had...

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Family Handyman Whole House Repair Guide edited by Ken Collier (2012)

Now that I am a homeowner (one whole year, whoop!), I have a good excuse to read this kind of book, although I'll admit that I've always had a fascination for checking out "how to" and "helpful hint" books even when I didn't have anything to which I could apply my new found knowledge. In fact, even now that I own a house, I'd probably only attempt a small subset of these repairs myself -- things that involve an investment in tools, a large investment of time, or that could go horribly wrong if they aren't done right are the kinds of things that I'd rather hire someone to do for me. Still, this kind of book is helpful even for book-learning handywomen like me since it gives me a good idea of what would be involved in a wide variety of repairs even if I don't end up doing the repair myself.

This book is well organized with a broad coverage of common repairs taken from the pages of Family Handyman magazine. Each repair is nicely illustrated and gives you a good idea of the tools, skills, and time needed to complete it. While all of this information is also available for free on the old internet, I like having a reference book like this to refer to, especially if I need to use it for a project away from the computer. There are a lot of books like this out there, but this one did the trick for me.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Reavers of Skaith by Leigh Brackett (1976)

To round out the three-part adventures of Eric John Stark on the planet of Skaith (previously reviewed here), the ever-wonderful Leigh Brackett brings us The Reavers of Skaith (1976). While there is no way that the cover could match the perfect science fiction vision of the second book in the series, the third volume is much more satisfying both in terms of its action and in its use of the main female character, the seer Gerrith, who is once again part of the action and not just along for the ride.

Stark and his compatriots find themselves betrayed at the start of volume three when the freelancing starship captain who had promised to take their delegation back to Pax double-crosses them, ransoms the party, and begins attacking and pillaging the defenseless planet.

As an off-worlder, Stark is seen by many as the cause of their misfortunes, and while he sets off on a cross-planet quest to reach a transmitter and call for inter-galactic help, he and his followers find themselves besieged by all forms of the inventively weird people that inhabit the dying planet of Skaith.

And Skaith, by the way, is really really dying now. Summer was extra short and winter blows into the far north and south with a vengeance. Crops die and workers and Farers surge into the cities and the fertile belt around the equator looking for food and shelter. Looks like Stark's ships and promise of transport to another planet are really going to come in handy for the people of Skaith -- if they can just hold on that long.

Brackett's combination of old-school science fiction adventure and 1970s environmentalism doesn't disappoint. Even though the second volume in this trilogy was a little weak, I'd highly recommend all three to any science fiction fan. And while the connections were a little lighter in the second volume, I stand by my assertion that these novels must have been an inspiration for George R. R. Martin. Winter is coming, indeed.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)

Back in 2008, the lovely Joolie lent me a copy of Jeffrey Eugenides' book Middlesex, and I liked it quite a bit. Five years later, a friend at work lent me her copy of Eugenides' most recent book, The Marriage Plot (2011). I've got quite the Eugenides racket going on...

The Marriage Plot is, much like the plot it references, a bit of a love triangle. Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell are seniors at Brown in 1982. Madeleine is in love with Leonard, the very smart and interesting scholarship student from Portland, who is also manic depressive. Mitchell is in love with Madeleine, the super smart and beautiful, upper-class English major from New Jersey. No one is really in love with Mitchell, the super smart religion major from Michigan who is exploring his spiritual side. The book alternates between all three characters' perspectives, spending the majority of the time with Madeleine and Mitchell, and takes us into their first year as "adults" after graduation.

While I liked Middlesex quite a bit, I'm more mixed on The Marriage Plot. This book is peppered with references to literature, literary theory, and academia. I can see how that would be a turnoff for some readers, but I found it pretty well done and consistent with the Ivy League intellectualism of the main characters. What was a bit of a turnoff for me was the narcissism, elitism, and general unlikability of all three of our heroes. They are all, of course, meticulously developed, well-written, and sympathetic, but spending an entire book with them takes a lot of energy.

Honestly, much of the narcissism and unlikability of these characters is because they are in their early twenties, and part of my like/dislike of the book has to do with all the uncomfortable early twenties feelings it brought up in me. I had a good time in college, particularly my senior year when I finally felt comfortable and smart and had some friends, but it was also an awkward time, fraught with self-consciousness and bad (or no) dates. That same kind of intellectual openness and romantic confusion is splayed out all over The Marriage Plot, and it rings very true. Having lived with and loved more than one person diagnose with manic-depression made the portrayal of the disease and those who live with it and who live with them equally filled with memory bombs.

So maybe the weird feelings about this book just have to do with me and my weird life, but I'd still recommend it to frustrated English majors and anyone who has finally bid their twenties goodbye.

Now all I need to do is find someone who can loan me The Virgin Suicides, and I can be a Eugenides completest!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Hounds of Skaith by Leigh Brackett (1974)

After reading and loving The Ginger Star, I did the unusual (for me) move of immediately ordering the other two books in the series. While in some ways the second volume, The Hounds of Skaith by Leigh Brackett (1974), didn't quite live up to the first entry, it far surpassed every other book on the face of the planet with the awesomeness of its cover. There is a lot going on there, but it all makes perfect sense after you read the book.

As you may remember from the first volume, Eric John Stark (a human who was raised by the equivalent of wolves in an abandoned mining colony on Mars) travels to the dying planet of Skaith to rescue his foster father, Ashton. He does just that in volume 1, and now must lead his party back to the south of the planet to try and intercept a ship home before the leaders send them all away and destroy the space ports. Among his companions are Stark's lover Gerrith, a prophetess from Skaith; and a pack of scary Northhounds, vicious psychic dogs trained to kill with fear. Stark leads the group through dangers both environmental and Skaithian using his skills of independence, strength, confidence, and empathy. Along the way we are introduced to a whole new host of inhabitants of a planet that has grown diverse as living creatures struggle to reach into the few niches left for survival.

All that is perfectly great, and Brackett is just as good as writing sci-fi based adventure stories as ever, but where volume 2 disappoints is in the lack of involvement with Gerrith, the Skaithian seer who is a well-rounded and important female character in the first volume. It isn't because she doesn't feature in the story, because she is along for the ride almost the entire time, but somehow she is left out of almost all the dialogue and plot points except for a couple nights in bed with Stark and a brief scene at the end of the book. We can be thankful at least that that scene transitions us into the possibility of more Gerrith in volume 3. Let's hope that Brackett doesn't forget about her!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Walking Dead, Volume 17: Something to Fear by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2012)

I've finally caught up with the end (so far) of the Walking Dead series with The Walking Dead, Volume 17: Something to Fear by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2012) [thanks, Dan!]. Luckily after the disappointment of Volume 16, the series comes back to violent life in this most recent addition. The Saviors are more than just a hypothetical target in this volume as they strike out against Rick and his community multiple times, even after being beaten back by Andrea's sharp-shooting. They prove that they have nothing to lose and the unexpected violence and death of beloved characters that we have grown to love over the past 17 volumes is in high form here. Great twist ending and none of the hacky dialogue of the last volume. Now, write another!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson (2003)

People had been telling me that I would love The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson (2003) for years, but a copy never came into my grasp until the lovely Dr. M bought me my very own copy for my birthday. Thanks, dude!

The Devil in the White City tells the parallel stories of Daniel Burnham, a prominent Chicago architect, and his quest to create a successful World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 (one that would even top the Paris World's Fair that unveiled the Eiffel Tower a few years before), and Herman Webster Mudgett (aka Dr. H. H. Holmes), a charming and successful psychopathic serial killer who preyed, among others, on the single women who came to enjoy Burnham's fair.

While these two men and their dedication to their very different passions is fascinating, the best part for me are the two non-human characters that lean over everything, the city of Chicago and the fair itself. The fair introduced widespread use of electric light, the Midway, the Ferris wheel, a resurgence in classical architecture, the "there's a place in France where the naked ladies dance" tune, and tons more. And Chicago: the most American of all American cities, trying to prove it's own worth against the diamond of New York City by hosting a gigantic fair that seems to be doomed to failure almost from the start.

Larson's novelistic writing style makes this the perfect history book for people who don't like history, but his extensive and diligent research, documented in pages and pages of footnotes, will make archivists and historians happy as well. Last year, my good friend Corie lent me Larson's most recent book, In the Garden of the Beasts, and I liked that one quite a bit, but I liked this one even more. Where Larson's narrative lost steam a bit towards the end of the more recent book, here the parallel stories keep the pace moving steadily all the way through.

People, you were right: I did love this book!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Walking Dead, Volume 16: A Larger World by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2012)

In The Walking Dead, Volume 16: A Larger World by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2012) Carl is doing better and a relative peace has come to the Alexandria Safe-Zone, but everyone can see that they are running out of food and pickings in the zombie-infested areas around the safe-zone are getting slim. Enter Jesus. Yep: Jesus. Could he be the group's savior? He certainly thinks so. After many suspicions are aired and tests are given a small group goes with him to the Hilltop community, a large group of over 200 survivors who also have their own farm. Cha ching! Jesus wants to open up a trade route between his colony and Rick's group, but a dirty secret is soon revealed: the Hilltop gang gives half of their harvest as a tariff to the mysterious and threatening gang called The Saviors (wait, who was the savior again?). Rick, naturally, decides to throw himself in the middle of everything.

I can see the need to expand the story, and when starting up a new arc there is nothing to be done but a bunch of exposition, but this volume was particularly heavy on the set-up and light on the pay off. In addition, the dialogue was hokier than usual and the drawing often seemed a little sloppy. Here is hoping for a return to form in Volume 17!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The New Central Texas Gardener by Cheryl Hazeltine and Barry Lovelace (1999)

The extremely lovely Joolie lent me her copy of The New Central Texas Gardener by Cheryl Hazeltine and Barry Lovelace (1999) shortly after I started attempting to put plants in the ground and keep them alive. I have a personal history of not being particularly great with plants (although a friend gave me some bulbine almost a year ago and it is so alive that it recently started making happiness flowers), and this book helped make the idea of gardening not quite so scary.

This book is logically organized into the big topics of gardening (climate / soil / trees / shrubs / fruits & veggies / flowers / pests / etc.), and the writing is a comfortable mix of friendly and authoritative. I really appreciated having a book where everything was geared to the hot, dry, rocky, clay-filled challenges of central Texas -- in so many gardening books and magazines half of the suggestions won't really work here since they are designed for the gardening paradise to our north.

The only thing I could have asked for would be more pictures, because who wouldn't want even more lovely pictures of lovely plants, but the combination of descriptions, line drawings, and some selected color plates do an adequate job of illustrating the plants and techniques that the authors discuss. Definitely a solid reference book for those attempting to become what the title suggests.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Walking Dead, Volume 15: We Find Ourselves by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2011)

In The Walking Dead, Volume 15: We Find Ourselves by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2011) we get a breather after the hectically awesome events of Volume 14. Rick is nursing his son out of a coma, coordinating the reinforcement of their village, and taking over leadership of the community. And the community is adjusting to the big changes that Rick and his group have brought from the outside. Ordinarily the "treading water" volumes like this one haven't entirely done it for me, but in this case it seemed like it the characters (and readers) earned it, and while zombies weren't flying out on every page, the tension and pacing were still maintained.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

"...And Ladies of the Club" by Helen Hooven Santmyer (1982)

"Astonishing how attached one can become to a group of essentially incompatible women." (p. 625)

My Aunt Charlotte lent me her copy of "...And Ladies of the Club" by Helen Hooven Santmyer (1982) last fall and I started reading it a little after Christmas. At 1176 pages, Santmyer gives George R. R. Martin a run for his money in the longest-books-I've-read-lately category, and it took me (a fast reader) a couple months to move through this one. While it was slow going early on, like many epics, this one caught me up in the lives of its characters and now that I've finished reading it, I miss reading about what's going on in Waynesboro, Ohio.

Santmyer's epic novel follows the lives of the citizens of Waynesboro from just after the Civil War in 1868 up into the heart of the Depression in 1932. While the cast of characters is extensive (sometimes, to be honest, a little too extensive to keep track of), the main focus of the book is on Anne Alexander Gordon (the daughter of the old town doctor who marries the new town doctor, John Gordon, recently back from the war), and Sally Cochran Rauch (the daughter of the town banker who marries a German entrepreneur, Ludwig Rauch, who has recently purchased a rope factory in Waynesboro). At the start of the book, both Anne and Sally have just graduated from the Waynesboro Female College, the local high school for girls. By the time the book ends, both women have born children, watched their grandchildren grow up, lost their husbands, and ultimately, died themselves.

Providing a structure to the book and to the lives of the intellectual women of Waynesboro is the Waynesboro ladies literary society, colloquially known as "The Club." Started by the headmistress of the Female College, the club consists of local teachers, seminary professor's wives, minister's wives from the various congregations in town, and well-bred women with the time and means to pursue literary culture. The Club meets every two weeks, at which time a paper is given by one of the members on a topic chosen by the program committee. The number of members is limited by the bylaws, and when a member dies or moves away, the selection of a new member is a hot topic. The one unbreakable rule is that the women can not let politics, gossip, or personal grudges enter into the confines of the Club meeting. Everyone must get along.

For me the book was occasionally slow going, particularly as I plowed through Santmyer's loving but extensive descriptions of the town layout, architectural style of the houses, and the decoration of everyone's drawing rooms, but her talent for developing strong characters and the occasional shake to the plot (affairs! Illness! Unwed mothers! Protestants marrying Catholics!) quickly pick up the pace. As a lover of history, the opportunity to read these close observations of American life from the 1860s through the 1930s was wonderful, and I feel like I have a stronger grasp on the changes in the lives of ordinary women as the decades pass by.

Politics is also a big part of this book, both on the national and local level. Her characters and sympathies are distinctly Republican, initially because of the rift of the Civil War, and later because of their tendency to be pro-capitalists, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. A nod is given to Socialism and the importance of treating the workers well, but in this book all factory owners are benevolent Republicans and unions just aren't necessary. Also, while Santmyer's detailed knowledge of local Ohio Republican politics was impressive, it occasionally slowed the narrative down, for this reader at least.

Santmyer herself grew up in a town much like the fictional Waynesboro. She was born in 1895, published a couple of books in the 1920s, and then spent 50 years working on this epic novel. It was published in 1982 when she was 87 and didn't sell that well until it was selected as a Book-of-the-Month Club book in 1984 and quickly went on to be a bestseller, making Santmyer the oldest best selling author at the time.

While this book is quite an investment of time, its strength is in its length and if you have a little patience, it really pays off.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Walking Dead, Volume 14: No Way Out by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2011)

Oh hell yes. The Walking Dead, Volume 14: No Way Out by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2011) is the one I'd been waiting for. That whole "humans are the real monsters" thing was good for awhile, but it was about time that Kirkman got back to dancing with the ones what brung us to this spectacularly fucked up hoe down: THE ZOMBIES! And there are zombies a-plenty here when the Alexandria Safe-Zone is besieged by a zombie herd and the walls begin to fail. And besides all the zombie heads being axed, shot, and macheteed, there is plenty of time for all that juicy character development and moral quandries that we have come to love. Let's keep this up!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Horror Films of the 1990s by John Kenneth Muir (2011)

Oh, hi. Wonder where I've been? Mostly I've been simultaneously reading two gigantic books, and Horror Films of the 1990s by John Kenneth Muir (2011) is the one that I just finished! It may seem weird to read a reference book on 1990s horror movies cover-to-cover, but I got a copy through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, and I couldn't in good faith write a review of it without reading the whole thing.

The 1990s are generally known as being a rather weak period for horror movies, and while there are plenty of one star reviews in Muir's book (and, actually, those are pretty entertaining to read), there are a good crop of four star movies in there as well. It helps that Muir casts his net wide -- the usual suspects like Scream or The Blair Witch Project and standard series like Children of the Corn, Friday the 13th, and Child's Play are joined by movies like Lost Highway, Silence of the Lambs, Jurassic Park, and Eyes Wide Shut. I like that Muir has a broad definition of horror, and I also like that he watched and reviewed all of these hundreds of movies by himself. He has also written compendiums on horror movies of the 1970s and 1980s, so he presumably knew what he was getting into with this one.

While the book cover couldn't look more like a high school sociology textbook, the contents are nicely organized and well illustrated. Muir starts each year off with a timeline of events and then moves into an alphabetical listing of the films reviewed from that year. Each movie includes complete cast and crew information, and many movies also include quotes from external reviews (both contemporary and retrospective), some of which contradict Muir and each other. Enveloping all this detailed information is a well-written introductory essay on the 1990s and how current events influenced the horror movies of the decade, and some intriguing appendices, including common themes from the 1990s (the police procedural, the interloper, the "meta" horror movie, etc.), movie tag lines, and Muir's personal top ten.

That personal top ten goes a long way to explaining why I liked this book so much -- it is a personal look at a huge number of genre movies. I don't always agree with Muir (I didn't like Scream at all and he loved it), but even when I disagreed with him I was interested to see his reasoning. And he always has reasons!

The book loses steam as you get into the late 1990s -- reviews are shorter and sloppier -- and sometimes Muir's quirks can get a little annoying (he is a little nit-picky about plot details) -- but overall this is a coherent and very readable overview of a huge swath of film history. Definitely recommended for horror movie fans, and since I'm married to this guy, you know that I am one of those!

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Walking Dead, Volume 13: Too Far Gone by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2010)

Ah yes, much as I expected, things are starting to get interesting again in The Walking Dead, Volume 13: Too Far Gone by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2010). The Alexandria Safe Zone, a seemingly utopian community planned before the zombie crisis as a solar-powered mini-refuge, being filled as it was with those fallible humans, had some rifts and slime bubbling up under the surface. Naturally, our newly settled band of lovable survivors, particularly Rick, couldn't let things go unremarked (that's what we love about him!) and the big issues of justice, punishment, self-defense, and survival once again rise to the top.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Walking Dead, Volume 12: Life Among Them by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2010)

Well, I knew it had to happen sometime -- we couldn't just hang out with limited characters out in the open forever, but I'm a little skeptical of where things are going in The Walking Dead, Volume 12: Life Among Them by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2010) now that our characters have found a somewhat-utopian community of Alexandria in which to life their "normal" lives. The character count just about quadruples in this volume, and that in itself was a little overwhelming. Of course I know that things are never what they seem, so I'm hoping for some disruptive action in the next volume.

[Also, I was totally right about that dude.]

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Ginger Star by Leigh Brackett (1974)

I have gushed about how much I like Leigh Brackett before, so I won't go over all her awesome qualities again except to say that she never disappoints. When I saw this copy of Brackett's The Ginger Star (1974) at a second-hand store in Omaha earlier this year, I grabbed it (along with a ton of Edgar Rice Burroughs' books) right away.

Eric John Stark was born in a mining colony on Mercury. When his parents and the rest of the humans died in an accident, he was taken in and raised by the native inhabitants of the planet. Later more humans came and killed all the "savage beasts" and took Stark as a curiosity. He was caged and humiliated until being rescued and taught English and human ways by Simon Ashton. Now Ashton, a representative of the interplanetary alliance, has disappeared on a little-known planet called Skaith and Stark will do whatever it takes to find him.

Skaith is an ancient and dying planet. Many thousands of years ago it had a vibrant artistic and scientific culture. Then planetary climate changes forced people to abandon the northern cities and resettle in the South. Much of their culture was lost in the struggle for survival and over the centuries pockets of people evolved into very different beings with very different ways of life. Over it all sit the Lords Protector -- unseen and ever present -- represented throughout the planet by their Wandsmen, wizards who maintain order and punish wrongdoing. Most of the planet scrapes by to support the lifestyle of the Wandsmen and the Farers, children of the Wandsmen who never work and only seek out pleasure in sex and drugs. But the sun that Skaith orbits is dying and the planet is gradually becoming more and more uninhabitable. A group of Iranese reach out to the interplanetary alliance and ask to be transported off the planet and resettled elsewhere. This threatens to destroy the world of the Wandsmen and the Farers and they fight back against Ashton and Stark.

Brackett is like a combination of Burroughs and Bradbury -- this is inventive, classic science fiction with an exciting action/adventure bent. As Stark traverses the planet looking for Ashton, we touch on the various inhabitants -- mer-people who had their genes altered centuries ago so they could survive the planetary changes by living under the ocean, people who join together in hypnotized religious pods before killing themselves as a group, Northern miners who harvest metal from long-abandoned ancient cities, and many more. Brackett gives each character a full description and a solid purpose but doesn't dwell on any one group, sticking instead with Stark, the ultimate instinctual outsider, as he works through his single-purposed quest.

This is the first book in a trilogy, and I liked it so much that I've already bought the other two. If you come across anything by Brackett at the used bookstore, pick it up right away -- you will not be disappointed.

P.S. I'm working on a theory that George R.R. Martin read and liked these Skaith novels because there are so many parallels with the Game of Thrones: a hero named Stark, a modern world reacting to an ancient and partially-forgotten past, a North/South divide, tiny mystical people called the Children who live in the far north, freaky giant wolves, an abundant use of the word Southron -- definitely something to think about!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Walking Dead, Volume 11: Fear the Hunters by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn (2010)

This volume maintains the tight pacing and close observation of characters that we've had since leaving the prison. At this point, we are so deep in a morass of complicated human failure and moral conundrums that it almost doesn't matter that there are herds of zombies out there just waiting to eat our brains. If you put those herds up against fratricide, the death penalty for children, and very very talkative cannibals, it is hard to say which way of life is really the more rewarding. This volume also features the death of one of my favorite characters, but it was done with such care that I almost don't mind at all.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Gathering of Waters by Bernice McFadden (2012)

I got this copy of Gathering of Waters by Bernice McFadden (2012) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program early in 2012 and I'm sad it took me so long to read it. Luckily, it got its chance when the book I'd just started was way too big to take with me in my carry-on bag on a recent plane trip, and Gathering of Waters was just the right size. I started the book at 4:30 in the morning at the Austin airport and finished it at two in the afternoon in the plane on the way to my final destination.

Gathering of Waters centers on the infamous 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi by two white men after they say he whistled a white woman at the grocery. Instead of being weighed down by the heavy history of her centerpoint, McFadden's novel creates a structure that is epic and small, spiritual and humorous, and that acknowledges the evil that exists in humanity while resolutely turning away from it.

The book starts in the early 1900s where a young girl in Oklahoma named Doll is possessed by the spirit of a murdered prostitute. Her mother unsuccessfully tries to exorcise the spirit and gives her daughter to the local pastor to raise as part of his family. Things are fine for several years, but when the spirit awakens in Doll, she seduces the pastor, breaks up the home, and the new family ends up moving to Money, Mississippi. We then follow Doll, her daughter Hemmingway, and her husband and son (along with the parallel story of a white family in the same town whose fate is intertwined with Doll's) through a rocky life leading up to the deadly flood of 1927. Eventually we make it to the 1950s where Hemmingway's daughter, Tass, has a crush on Emmett Till, the outspoken boy from Chicago who is in Mississippi visiting his uncle. And we even move further along to the present day as Tass marries, has a family, and ages and the spirit of Emmett finds her again.

This isn't a book that I feel I can do justice with a simple plot description since there is so much more to it than what happens. McFadden's writing style is the perfect mix of plain and poetic, and the easy incorporation of spiritual and magical elements into everyday life is reminiscent of Toni Morrison in all the best ways. I really liked this one.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Walking Dead, Volume 10: What We Become by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2009)

As the journey to Washington, D.C. begins in The Walking Dead, Volume 10: What We Become by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2009), Rick, who has been doubting his ability to lead, butts heads big time with Abraham, the ultimate alpha-male. And somehow, in the course of this conflict, Rick starts making good decisions and the two men come clean about how broken their strength has made them. I am very into this move away from the character-heavy prison into a stripped down, more focused look at individual personalities in a moving group. Rick and his son Carl (and their relationship) are some super interesting characters. Let's do more of this in Volume 11!

[Also, I may be wrong, but I think the "scientist" in the group is full of shit. Still, I'm glad they have a purpose, even if it seems far-fetched.]