31 October 2011

Post 442: Z

Z: Zombie Stories edited by J.M. Lassen. ISBN: 9781597803120 (eGalley - published October 4, 2011).

Zombies. People might wonder why I like them. Or why anyone likes them. I can't speak for everyone, but maybe some of my answers will work for you.

Zombies are the ultimate plebeians. They are The People's Monster. Anyone and everyone can be and/or encounter a zombie. Depending on what type of zombie is being presented, there are usually no complicated rituals or circumstances involved in becoming a zombie and they appear wherever people are, usually starting in the cities and spreading out as delicious zombie chow becomes scarce. Because of this, zombies are as diverse as the people they feed on. It is not unbelievable to have scientist zombies, Viking zombies, or hillbilly zombies. Someone could reasonably write zombies in space without it being totally out there (it's certainly no crazier than murderous Leprechauns in Space*).

Meanwhile, it seems to take more work to become a werewolf or a vampire. Becoming a vampire is notoriously difficult. Chances are if you don't work at it, you have been made a vampire in order to act as stake fodder and gopher for an older, more established vampire, which means you won't be living for centuries and centuries like you planned. Werewolves are depicted mostly as being fairly lone animals (interesting considering that wolves are pack animals), not to mention it's awfully difficult to survive being mauled by a bloodthirsty animal in order to become a werewolf yourself.

Not zombies though. Anyone and everyone can become a zombie. There's no real pecking order either. Whoever gets to the brains first is usually the zombie that eats them. It's the one society of monsters where you don't have to worry about who's in charge or who has more power. You all start as walking corpses and end in the same condition. The zombie who eats the most brains is not the wealthiest zombie because zombies don't need to eat anyway.

But ultimately I find zombies interesting because there are so many different things you can do with them. Originally, a zombie was simply someone who has been raised from the grave with lessened mental capacity. Romero added the flesh eating element, and of course there's now the possibility of viruses (manufactured or not). We can plop zombies into all sorts of settings and see how people react to them. Zombie stories are a bit like lab rat experiments in that way and because of this they are an excellent means of reflecting how humans really react without the binding of social mores and law. We get the chance to both be and face the monster with varying levels of humanity, and that is highly appealing to me.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Review copy provided via Netgalley.
*Holy shit, Guy Siner, why are you in that movie?

27 October 2011

Post 441: Double Feature (H.P. Lovecraft)

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward* 
At the Mountains of Madness*
by H.P. Lovecraft.

According to these two stories, which happen to be the only Lovecraft I've read so far, curiosity kills and/or drives the humans mad, which is unfortunate since it's a pretty strong natural adaptation the cat. This is terrifying because it means even the most well meaning of humans could unleash unspeakable terrors before the rest of mankind could even step in and say, "PER ADONAI ELOIM, ADONAI JEHOVA, ADONAI SABAOTH, METRATON. Bitches."

Lovecraft himself incites a curiosity in me, where even though I know Bad Things Are Going to Happen, I can't help but want to learn more about Joseph Curwen from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (henceforth CDW) and the abandoned civilization from At The Mountains of Madness (AtMoM). Lovecraft's near detached narration style, while dry at first, actually lends itself quite well to the sense of unease I felt while reading the stories. By recounting information in a factual, but detailed manner, Lovecraft removed any emotion from the narrative, instead making it read almost like a scientific observation.  The fact that the details themselves are so interesting and draw the reader in make his stories powerful in a way that a more "readable" style of writing wouldn't. Let's take a look at the individual stories.

Poor Charles Dexter Ward is your average upper class gentleman, highly intelligent, with a tendency toward eccentricity and an interest in history. Replace his gender and make him about 60 years old and you have every librarian's challenging genealogy problem, because as humans we feel like we have to know who and where we came from and if you found a big, dark family secret, wouldn't you dig deeper? For instance, in my family there's suspicion that my paternal grandmother was hiding Native American blood; someday I will probably attempt to track that down despite the fact that she would never, ever, ever want to be associated with being Native American anymore than I really want to be associated with someone who happens to be a bigoted Southern Baptist (and yet I am, and I claim her anyway). That's because ignoring the problem only dooms your ancestors to repeat mistakes or unknowingly defile or insult a cultural heritage that they rightfully ought to have claim to. Because Charles Dexter Ward's ancestor was erased from history, he was doomed to the same actions as Joseph Curwen simply out of curiosity. Had he been forewarned as to why Joseph Curwen was blacklisted in his community, the curiosity to seek out hidden knowledge and perform secret rites might not have been so strong.

Meanwhile AtMoM actually attempts to correct this problem. At first attempting secrecy, William Dyer and his surviving compatriots remain mum on what they found in the frozen Antarctic depths, but as new expeditions are gearing up they have come to the decision to reveal all. Yet the very details Dyer reveals of the incredible city he found only made me want to see it for myself. It was like being given a very fuzzy photograph of what you can tell is an incredibly beautiful location and then being told that it's located on a planet with an arsenic heavy atmosphere. Just because I know I can't go there for safety reasons doesn't mean I still don't want to see, it just means I have to be off my rocker to actually do it.

By the way, Lovecraft provides an excellent quote for leaving Shit Where It Is in the earth. I'll share it with you and imply that if he knew about fracking, Lovecraft would have definitely written a story about it.

"It is absolutely necessary for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth's dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be left alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests."  Page 94.

I'm not saying that oil companies want to wake the Elder Gods, but... I'm pretty sure if they did they'd still find a way to profit.

Goodreaders Chris and SoL did an excellent job of reviewing The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Goodreader Brian gets points for his review of At the Mountains of Madness. Yes, I was lazy and decided not to try to find blog reviews, okay.
LibsNote: Most, if not all, of H.P. Lovecraft is in the public domain. I downloaded my copies from Many Books.
--Wonky header, because well, I didn't have any better ideas for how to do this and I don't get paid enough to spend hours on it.

24 October 2011

Post 440: Dust

Dust by Joan Frances Turner. ISBN: 9780441019281.

On the surface this appears to be a somewhat creative, but not entirely mind blowing novel about zombies. The zombie narrator was a bit novel at the time this was written, but it seems to be growing in popularity, and  underneath the skin of zombie exterior lies a subtext crawling with life. Dust is not a novel about zombies; it's not even really a coming of age novel. It is a novel about privilege very cleverly disguised as those other things. This book is about Indians Black Americans deaf people Others in zombie clothing. And it seems a lot of people have missed that.

Dust presents us with a group of... people who have their own culture, food, rituals, and language. These people are seen as Savage, Stupid, Undesirable, and Needing Correction. And while there are a number who do hunt human flesh, there are other groups that only feed on animal flesh, yet the entire population is negatively categorized. So certain scientists seek to create a disease which will correct the zombie problem by making them look more like humans... and they "succeed."

Unfortunately having a zombie look like a human doesn't really solve any "problems" for the humans. Instead, now they have non-decaying, super strong, ultra-hungry zombies AND a disease that affects humans in similar ways so that they essentially wiped out both peoples. Humans: making stupid decisions for everyone since forever. Meanwhile, the zombies, or at least the gang we're introduced to, were happy living in the forest spending their days hunting, talking to each other, dancing, and beating the ever loving crap out of each other as some sort of weird-to-us form of bonding.

And that's the problem with privilege. What appears weird-to-us may be perfectly normal and healthy for another society that has functioned that way for hundreds of years, and all of a sudden removing that function could be detrimental to both societies. Which is not to say that some things shouldn't be changed, but there is perhaps a right way and a wrong way to do so. Forcing someone to convert to a certain way of life (Spanish missionaries and Native Americans immediately come to mind), is not the best way to get someone to change and causes plenty of strife. However, working within the culture to promote change and allowing them to create their own cultural reasons for doing so will be healthier and last longer than forced change. I am not suggesting that murder and rape be allowed in cultures that do not consider them crimes, etc., but that there should be an amount of understanding about why and how those things came to be widely accepted and to assist in making changes, rather than coming in and strong arming a country into a certain set of moral values. We lose things that way. We have lost a whole plethora of knowledge regarding subsistence living, craftsmanship, and who knows what else because our ancestors came in with guns blazing and ready to claim land and resources at any cost.

Not to side with the zombies in every case, but if they can and will live without human flesh, what benefit is it to us to kill them other than we don't want to share resources?

One of my favorite bloggers, Trisha, at eccentric/eclectic gives good reasons for why she didn't love this book. Destroy the Brain has a much more positive review, which I am more in agreeance with. Additionally, it looks like a great zombie/horror resource.
LibsNote: I bought this sucker from the library sale table as one of three books for a quarter. Too cheap not to buy.
*I am not comparing anyone to zombies, there are simply similarities in the treatments of the Other by those who view them as such from a position of privilege. Also, my focus on Native Americans probably stems from reading this around Columbus Day. Correlations, they happen.
**Also, my opinions on influencing other cultures change depending on what's being done. I'm weird about what I find acceptable versus what I don't and it changes based on why a society does what it does, etc. For instance, not a fan of female circumcision, but if an adult woman decides to remove her clitoris I can't really object to it despite health concerns.

20 October 2011

Post 439: Brains

Brains: A Zombie Memoir by Robin Becker. ISBN: 9780062000309 (eBook).

Maybe I would have liked Jack Barnes the zombie a bit better if Jack Barnes the human wasn't such a reprehensible human being. It is truly difficult to root for a bloodthirsty monster when said monster also has entitlement issues, illusions of grandeur, the morals of a honey badger, and an ego and inverse depth of the Grand Canyon.  In other words, he is a tenured professor who hasn't had his ideas challenged in a very, very, very long time. Oh, and he doesn't like women all that much. I mean, not as people.

The problem with Jack Barnes wanting "rights" for zombies is mostly in the phrasing. I can't really argue with denying rights to a sentient creature, even if said creature happens to crave my flesh. Barnes happens to be one of a handful of sentient creatures out of a horde of the mindless varietal we're more accustomed to; he is a privileged zombie. We'll call him zombileged. Or not. That's still a crappy portmanteau, disappointing, I love a good portmanteau. And that's just the problem. People who have lived a life of privilege sometimes feel they are, ahem, entitled to "rights" because they don't understand the difference between a privilege and a right. Technically, Barnes does not have a right to eat human brains because he does not require them for his survival. He should, as much as I hate to say it, have the right to live because he is a sentient being, and so long as he is able to live in a way that honors other sentient being's desire to live, there is no reason to discontinue his existence.

Unfortunately, Barnes, for all of his supposed intellectual power, does not understand this. Instead, he attempts to contact survivor communities to set up a "mutually" beneficial arrangement through which humans could potentially earn the "honor" of becoming a zombie; meanwhile the human community will provide the zombies with choice undesirables. You know, like criminals, the insane, the old, and the handicapped... because experimenting chewing on those people and leaving the rest of the "normal" and "healthy" population alone is better than having a society where everyone is valued an unhealthy population. The fact that Barnes feels that offering the humans a chance to become a zombie is a good trade (instead of maybe offering to hunt down and kill the mindless zombies so the humans can rebuild), shows another sign of privilege and entitlement.

Jack Barnes cannot fathom that maybe humans would rather die than become zombies, because he is a zombie and he is the best thing on this god damned planet. That Barnes does not have the balls to die as a human being does not even occur to him because he truly believes the world would be a darker place without his "contributions." This is a case of effectively blinding oneself with the gleam of gold leaf on shit. All Jack can see is the gold, and others might be fooled, but the rest of us can smell the shit and we don't want it. So while Barnes goes around using up resources (brains) he doesn't really need, he is forcing others to suffer so that he can continue existing in his new and "improved" state.

And this is where Becker went wrong. Had Barnes come to the conclusion that being a zombie really kind of sucked, or at least been as good as being a human, I might have hopped on board. But Barnes thinking he was better than everyone else throughout the entire novel was beyond aggravating, especially after he brushed off his wife's anger over "an affair of no consequence with a graduate student, a dim meaty woman with breasts the size of a newborn's head, both of which, breast and metaphorical infant, I'd gladly eat now." (page 15). The same wife who we later discover had several miscarriages (speaking of metaphorical infants) likely cause by her anorexia, which Barnes sickeningly finds attractive in a woman. In his own words, "I adored anorexics. With their low self-esteem, desire to please, and rigorous self-disciple, what's not to like?" (page 112). Ugh. Just ugh.

A Monster Librarian bit into this and decided it didn't taste so great. Goodreader Mae also loathed the narrator, which seems to be the consensus of people who hated this book. I actually wish it had been written from nurse Joan's point of view.
LibsNote: Library copy via Overdrive Media.

18 October 2011

Post 438: Dayna Ingram (Interview)

This interview took place over instant messenger between myself and the author of Eat Your Heart Out, Dayna Ingram on October 13, 2011.  The interview has been edited for flow, to fix typos and capitalization, and to make us both sound less like prats, but for the most part is intact. Links added by blogger and not necessarily endorsed by Dayna. 

Dayna Ingram grew up in Ohio and has since moved to the Bay Area, where she spends most of her time workin’, schoolin’, and forcin’ her dog to wear sweater vests. For more info on her writing projects, visit thedingram.blogspot.com. Her new novel Eat Your Heart Out will be available from Brazenhead sometime in November.

LibsLIB: It's been about a year since I last interviewed you. What have you been up to since then?
Dayna Ingram: Let's see. I moved to berkeley, I got promoted at work, I wrote some more things....I am one more semester away from graduating....ummm... I discovered Battlestar Gallactica somewhat to my detriment, as I put off a lot of important things to watch it, such as bathing and sleeping.

LibsLIB: Your last novel was self-published, while this one is going through a small press, what have your experiences with that been so far? Do you prefer one over the other at this point or is it too early to tell? 
Dayna: Selling a manuscript is more exciting because it's like, "Hooray! A stranger likes my story and thinks other people will too!" It's nice to have someone in your corner, and Alex Jeffers (the editor/publisher of BrazenHead) has been great. One thing that's the same with both self-publishing and small press publishing (at least in this case) is that there is still no marketing budget. BrazenHead will send out review copies, but that's it. So I'm still grass-rootsing it.
LibsLIB: Do you get to choose who receives review copies, or does Jeffers make that decision?
Dayna: He does it. I could maybe make suggestions. But I can also send copies on my own to places. I'm not entirely sure, to be honest. I don't want to step on any toes, I'm so new at this!
LibsLIB: If there was one person you could make sure read Eat Your Heart Out, who would it be?
Dayna Michelle Rodriguez.I'm going to send her a copy. Maybe her intern/personal assistant will like it, at least

LibsLIB: What exactly is your fascination with Michelle Rodriguez?
Dayna: That is like asking me why I love butter. Butter is delicious. She is fierce. She is a strong, sexy lady. She fought some zombies in a movie one time. And I have a thing for bad girls, you know this.
LibsLIB: You dedicated your novel to her, in your own opinion, flattering or borderline creepy?
Dayna: Haha, I thought it was funny. Who do you think Renni Ramirez is? I'm just solidifying the image for the reader. But it might be a bit creepy.

LibsLIB: Speaking of Renni Ramirez, do you consider this a lesbian novel with zombies, or a zombie novel with lesbians? 
Dayna: A lesbian novel with zombies. There's a lot more focus on the lesbians. If it was a zombie novel with lesbians, I think I would have killed off a lot more characters. For the gore factor.
LibsLIB: You decided to go with the classic slow moving, mindless zombies, is that your ideal zombie, or do you like other zombies as well?
Dayna: That is my ideal zombie, especially if I were running away from one. I like that zombie best because it's super creepy, being stalked by something so slow and smelly. It's also easier to underestimate those types of zombies, and that's when shit starts getting real. I love the zombies in Left 4 Dead (the game) that explode zombie-attracting goo on you, though. That's a pretty cool survival tool for the species. If you can call zombies a species.

LibsLIB: Do you have any favorite zombie movies or books?
Dayna: Yes. My favorite zombie book is Max Brook's World War Z. I think he took a very cool angle on it, oral histories of the Zombie War, that allowed him to explore a lot of different aspects of a zombie outbreak in a realistic way. My favorite zombie movie is Shaun of the Dead, because it managed to make me laugh, make me cry, and creep me out a bit. Not since Steel Magnolias has that happened.

LibsLIB: Do you feel that LGBTQ are underrepresented in the zombie genre? What do you think including them has to offer in terms of storytelling?
Dayna: Yes, I think they're (we're) underrepresented in all literature and media. I recently Googled "lesbian zombie novel" and got only one hit that had anything to do with zombies, the rest was all lesbian vampires. In terms of storytelling, I think it just adds something for a reader to relate to, or just be aware of. "Hey, gay people fight zombies too!" Eat Your Heart Out might have been just as sexy if one of the main characters was a man, but they're women, so, hooray! I would like to plug the website AfterEllen.com right now, which is an entertainment website for and by LGBTQ peoples. A quick search of that site will show anyone just how very little we are represented in the media.

LibsLIB: You have some unusual names in your book (Biff Tipping, Carmelle Souffle), why did you include such unusual names and how did you come up with them ?
Dayna: I must confess that is a result of having written the first draft of this for NaNoWriMo. I didn't have time to second-guess names, and they just sounded good at the time. Biff Tipping sounds like beef tips to me, and he's kinda big and beefy, and Carmelle Souffle is all creamy and delicious. I really like food.

LibsLIB: If you had to pair Eat Your Heart Out with a particular food and/or beverage, what would it be?
Dayna: Chocolate cake that you must eat with your face (no hands).What did you eat while you read it?
LibsLIB: I don't eat much while I read, I think I remember eating black licorice.

LibsLIB: Are you planning to participate in NaNoWriMo again this year? What will you be writing about and do you have any advice for other NaNoers?
Dayna: Indeed I plan to! I am going to work on a novella called BLAM!, which borrows heavily from Noir traditions and has a little fun with sex and gender. My advice is: don't plan what you are going to write too far ahead of time. Focus on immediacy: What do you want from this immediate scene? What do you want to express here? (Expectations amount to pressure and pressure amounts to not writing!) And don't get discouraged if you are behind by, like, 10,000 words with two days to go. There is this magical potion called 5-hour Energy.... It's also good to have buddies to write with, and encourage each other. But that's true in all things. Also throw in a bunch of crazy extra words and adverbs, you can edit them out later.

LibsLIB: Is there a NaNoWriMo novel you'd like to see someone else write?
Dayna: Zombie Unicorns!!

17 October 2011

Post 437: Eat Your Heart Out

Eat Your Heart Out by Dayna Ingram. ISBN: 9781590213339 (Advanced copy - publishes November 2011).

Romance is so hard to write. There seem to be two ways you can really write romantic interactions: completely silly or totally serious. The first one is hard to do without making it too silly, and the second is hard to do without making it too silly AND serious. Without balance, neither one really rings true, but I would venture to say that the ones with a bit of silliness are a little more accurate. Dayna Ingram has managed to find that balance, at least as far as her character Devin is concerned.

So yes, having Devin accidentally break Renni's nose within hours of meeting her is borderline silly, and so is rolling around in the mud in a field of zombies, but hey, there are zombies and how sane do you suppose your romantic responses would be when faced with the living dead? So in this way Devin's response seems far more true to me based on the circumstances than a straight-laced takes-itself-too-seriously romance novel-esque version of the same situation. Having been in situations of mental crises, I can guarantee you that I have not made the greatest choices, which is not to say that the romantic pairing in this novel is a bad choice, but perhaps the timing is not so awesome. But dammit, we're human, we fuck at inopportune moments and get involved with people when we probably shouldn't because sometimes we just have to think with our hormones. And as a result, hilarious things happen.

Flirtations bomb or are a little over the top, there are tentative moments, sometimes there are ass slaps that seem to come from nowhere, and then there's the dumb and slack jawed staring, because that totally happens sometimes. And you know what, it's a hell of a lot more fun, and sometimes even more appealing, than the calling-Heathcliff-from-the-moors kind of "romance."

For one thing, the nervous/giddy nature of initial flirting acts as a kind of boundary testing. Is it okay if I touch this person's arm? Is it okay if I comment on how they look? Someone who is good at gauging another person's response will take the cues and respond accordingly, which eventually increases the level of comfort and leads to further permissions being granted as the couple gets to know each other. Meanwhile the straight-laced romances seem to bypass this or use a sort of kick in the door approach, usually via Stockholm syndrome or one character pretty much forcing another character into a stressful situation in which they bicker with each other until there is that breaking moment where all of a sudden the forced character (usually female, gee...) submits to the one doing the forcing. While it is not (usually) outright rape, it is manipulative as hell and I'll take the sexy playful, overly awkward, and flirtation heavy romance Dayna* has provided over bodice ripping any day.

My review can be found on Goodreads, and I so added that book to the catalog. Because I have magical powers.
LibsNote: Review copy provided by the most awesome person in the world. I mean the author. I mean Dayna Ingram. She is my secret girlfriend. (Well, she would be if I weren't straight. Stupid biology.)
*Also see any of Gail Carriger's novels. I'm sure there are other examples, but I can't think of them off the top of my head. Katniss and Peeta in Hunger Games also come to mind.

15 October 2011

Post 436: a general update

Sooooo, I skipped a general post (because I did not include The Tigress of Forli in the last one). There's a reason for that: I'm doing a bit of a theme with my next batch of books because Halloween is freaking awesome. I didn't do anything special for Halloween last year, for whatever reason. I don't typically do themed posts unless it happens to be on accident, and well, that's kind of what happened again here. I found I was scheduling a lot of zombie books and decided, "Oh look, a thing, let's make that thing a Thing." Thing-a-ling-a-ding-dong. I so ran that through Microsoft Sam at warp speed, and so should you. Oh, and since I was lazy and didn't want to make a whole bunch of library books, not only will there be zombies, there will also be madness, and by madness I mean Lovecraft. It's kind of synonymous really. If you didn't know what synonymous meant, you might think it was an animal, possibly a snake-mouse hybrid. Maybe with wings. Somebody draw me a picture of a "synonymous," I will love you forever.

Eat Your Heart Out by Dayna Ingram.
Yes, that Dayna Ingram. And also that one. She wants her own Wikipedia page, someone should make that happen someday. Anyway, zombies and lesbians, what's not to like?

Brains: A Zombie Memoir by Robin Becker.
I started reading this October 3rd (to give you an idea of where I am in my reading syllabus). I don't care much for Jack Barnes. He's kind of an asshole; an undead asshole. I really hope a bullet lands in that over-educated brain of his.

Dust by Joan Frances Turner.
I have actually picked this book up and read the dust jacket several times at the library in Bowling Green only to put it back on the shelf because I already had too many books. Then I saw it on the library sale table and since it was less than 10 cents I bought it. Of course, now I don't remember exactly what it's about other than zombies. I seem to remember the blogosphere liking it... or at least not hating it.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft.
Requested by one of my friends who I used to do a podcast with waaaaaay back in time. He wanted to know why I had never done anything Lovecraftian for the blog and my response was, "Uh... I dunno, hasn't come up yet." So this is his recommendation and I figure Halloweenish would be a good time for the readin's of the Lovecraft.

At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft.
That reason above, read that again.

13 October 2011

Post 435: The Tigress of Forli

The Tigress of Forli by Elizabeth Lev. ISBN: 9780151012992 (eGalley - publishes: October 20, 2011).

It's books like this that make me think people who say, "history is boring," are reading the wrong god damned books and/or have sticks in the mud for teachers and/or have teachers who are forced to teach on a curriculum which is based on getting people to pass a test. This book is about an Italian countess by the name of Caterina Riario Sforza de Medici. She did everything that Joan of Arc did, in a dress and while pregnant and dealing with the soap opera-esque politics of Italy in the Renaissance.

People seem to forget that history is made up of the stories of people who have done incredible things or lived in incredible times. While most of history has been comprised of the doings of men, this is only because men have, er, historically been the ones studying and recording... history. Even Caterina's stories and what we know of her are still filtered through male chroniclers, yet her own words are also preserved in letters and as there were several accounts of her doings there is a greater chance for discerning what actually happened. People who find picking through misleading details and attempting to get at the truth behind authorial prejudice tedious must also be the ones who refrain from workroom gossip or watching reality shows or reading The Enquirer or celebrity magazines... Which... I'm not sure such a person exists. At some point we all prick our ears up when we hear juicy tidbits about our neighbors, even if we never spread the rumor and even if the rumor is false. Just knowing that the information is out there gives our big social brains a jolt.

And really, history is just outdated gossip. Since few people are around to tell firsthand accounts, we aren't going to get trustworthy accounts, and even people who were there aren't going to give us trustworthy accounts because people are people. If history were exact it would be a science and I would be employed and well paid right now, but people are fucking complex creatures with faulty wiring and motives. What people don't understand about historians is that in order to be a good one, you have to be able to: detect the bullshit; determine if there was a motive for the bullshit in the first place; and then frame the bullshit, preferably in an enjoyable and readable manner, into a narrative. It's not just saying, "This happened because of this and then this happened after that." It's about context and politics and sex and disease and money and the crazy shit people believe in and how they act according to all those things.

Lev knows all of this and has created a near George R.R. Martin-esque narrative (minus the sister-brother incest and dragons). While it still reads a bit dry compared to fiction, it is rich and well worth reading for those interested in a good story, and all the more thrilling when you realize that it is true. Or at least as true as we know it to be for now.

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Review copy provided by Netgalley.

10 October 2011

Post 434: How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. ISBN: 978030737920.

I greatly enjoyed some of the science fiction nerd references in here, i.e. the fact that the TM-31 was described more or less as a Tardis, Linus Skywalker, and a few others that escape me because I sandwiched reading this between Ready Player One and Brains: A Memoir. Yeah... I am glutting a bit on the geekery here.

But overall I didn't much care for this book. I know that part of it is that any book following Ready Player One is like asking someone to make me like drinking orange juice after brushing my teeth. I enjoy both activities, but one is much less pleasant after the other. Yeah, sorry, I can't get that taste out of my mouth right now either and I'm drinking coffee.

The other reason I didn't like it all that much is that Charles Yu (the character in the book) didn't really do much, and while I like philosophical topics in my books the framework of trying to find a lost, but previously distant and cold, father doesn't really work for me. Maybe because I have a cold and distant father and have no desire to find him. Then again, I know exactly where he is right now and still don't have a huge urge to go and "find" him. Perhaps this is more of draw for people who have cold and distant fathers who actually achieve something (like the principles behind time travel), or who have at least spent some quality time with their fathers (trying to build a time machine). This is of course more of a problem with me and my relationship with my father than what Charles Yu1 (the author) has written regarding Charles Yu2 (the character) and his father, but only seeing Charles Yu2's father through Yu2's eyes via a memory corridor does not make him overly sympathetic. Yes, he had it bad with having a slightly less than desirable economic situation (he was poor but not too poor) and marriage (mostly because he neglected the wife to build a time machine) and job (because he was passed over for promotion... possibly because he neglected his job to build a time machine). He just does not seem like the kind of person I would want to find, and I got the feeling that he was the kind of person who didn't really want to be found.

My own father is somewhat like that. And most of that is due to his mental illness, which is very real and very crippling, but he exacerbates the problem by only trying to contact people when it's too late and he's on the verge of being or needing hospitalization. It is hard to feel any emotional or even human connection with someone who only tries to connect with you when they feel they are at the end of their rope. My father only calls me when he's depressed or wants me to visit him for Christmas or whatever (because he's depressed), yet where was my invitation to his wedding? I probably wouldn't have gone, but shouldn't I have at least been invited? And why does he want me to be friends with my step siblings (I think I have five?) whom I have never met and at this rate probably will never meet?

Perhaps this makes me a bad daughter or a bad person, but you can't predict what kind of partner/child/friend you will have if you only allow them to view one part of your life (good or bad). The only thing I can do is recommend that you share as much of your good times with your friends as you do your bad times, and vice versa, or risk getting stuck in some out-of-time portal.

The Labryinth Librarians do a quick flyby of the things I actually liked about this book. To some degree I also agree with Kirkus Reviews on this one, but I wasn't in the mood for it, and so my real feelings about it are best summed up by Goodreader Steven Ramirez.
LibsNote: Library copy.

06 October 2011

Post 433: Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. ISBN: 9780307887436.

As much as this book is about nerd culture, there is also a strong underlying theme of confidence (the lack thereof and the eventual gaining of it). Wade, like many 19 year old nerd boys is trying to find his place in the world. He has not had much success in the real world, facing the usual bullying and body awkwardness that comes with puberty. But in the OASIS he is a legend.

Of course, Wade doesn't start his story there, and the narration matches Wade's confidence as it grows throughout the story, as if by writing/telling his story he is embarking on a new adventure all over again. And for all we know he is; he may indeed be gaining confidence in his storytelling abilities as he tells the story for "the first time" to us, just as he gained confidence from doing the original actions.

What is remarkable about Wade is that what he learns in the online world eventually transfers to the real world. Yes, he gains notoriety online, but first he has to obtain specialized knowledge about Halliday, the creator of the OASIS, in order to achieve his goals. Gaining this knowledge is itself a step towards gaining confidence as it gives Wade abilities that few others have. He may not be the only one with this knowledge because many people are after Halliday's inheritance, which he has hidden in the game, but he knows more about Halliday and is better at many of the games mentioned in the journal than other people. With this comes a sense of self worth for Wade, because he has obtained knowledge that others seek. Eventually he also becomes the first player to find one of three keys Halliday hid in the OASIS.

Wade could rest on his laurels, but he continues to build his knowledge base and hone his skills and eventually his physical body so that he is better prepared to find the final keys and gates. By the time Wade reached the last gate, he was fully capable of functioning in the real world as a confident and well rounded person.

While this may not happen for many game players, I do think it is possible to use gaming as a tool to achieve this kind of success in the real world. And by success I am not referring to wealth and riches, but honing techniques and skills needed to function successfully in the real world (i.e. socialization, the aforementioned confidence, a desirable knowledge base, etc.). The key is figuring out which games might be helpful in doing so.

Also, read this damned book. It is awesome, especially if you spent any portion of your life in the 80's..

The Word Zombie does an excellent job of reviewing this novel. Especially love the line, "I realized about half way through that this is the book my 13 year-old self didn’t know he was preparing my 40 year-old self to love."
This is one of the few books where Kirkus Reviews and I disagree. Too much puzzle solving? You sirs and madams have not played enough D&D (which is probably another reason you didn't like the pacing).
LibsNote: Library copy.

03 October 2011

Post 432: The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011 edited by Mary Roach. ISBN: 9780547350639 (eGalley - publishes October 4, 2011).

I really enjoyed the articles presented in this collection. Roach did an excellent job of selecting articles with a balance of levity, seriousness, and practicality. But what I like most about the articles she selected was the sense of hopefulness that there are answers to the problems we have created, and that science may offer a means of figuring out the solution. Note that I did not say that science would be the solution to the problem itself, but science is a means of predicting and determining what might happen. So science should be part of the solution, even if it's just to suggest that we pare down on the amount of technology, chemicals, etc. that we use.

The difference in these articles as opposed to most newspaper journalism is astounding. The latter seems to present only the problem, with little or no indication that our problems can be solved. This might be a reason so many people are willing to say that global warming (or climate change) doesn't exist. It is easier to believe that something doesn't exist than to attempt to deal with a problem where there appears to be no solution. This is not a healthy attitude to take, especially countrywide. I can certainly understand the inclination to feel this way and take this route on a personal level. I lived through a couple of rough situations where it felt like I had absolutely no control over my life. This resulted in a sense of helplessness and frustration and eventually to suicidal thoughts... which is exactly where it feels like we're headed now as far as the current ecological problems are concerned.

I admit, I'm sticking my head in the sand a bit as well (particularly as far as the economic situation is concerned). It's easier for me not to think about or look at my Roth IRA (I glanced at it recently and felt like throwing up). But it might be better if we sought out more information rather than less. Certainly reading these articles made me feel better about scientific progress and the options it offers. Should any of you out there need a similar shot of hope, might I recommend a book?

My review can be found on Goodreads.
LibsNote: Review copy provided by Netgalley.

01 October 2011

Banned Book Week: Cat's Cradle

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. ISBN: 9780140285604.

I don't usually fetishize books. They aren't really so much objects to me as they are containers of knowledge. But I do find comfort in their presence, possibly because of what they represent, and also because they are familiar to me. Almost anywhere I go, I know that a book will be somewhere within a short distance. Chances are, it will be a book I have read before, and if I get hold of one that I've read before, even if it has a different cover, the very words inside will be known to me. This particular book traveled with me during most of time at Antioch College. It's a slim volume, so it went with me on at least a couple of co-ops.

Most notably it went with me when I was working for the Syracuse Peace Council in New York where I first discovered there was such a thing as Banned Books Week. In fact, I don't think I knew that people in America had called for the banning of books in the last 50 years. It seemed like such an un-American thing to do. So when the ACLU, which worked closely with the Syracuse Peace Council, put on a Banned Books reading I learned that I had dragged a copy of a book that had been banned or challenged across the country with me. At the time we were faced with the possibility of a second term from George W. Bush and so I selected what I felt was an appropriate portion of the book. I even notated it with "read 9/29/2004." That shit happened. Here's the passage:
"I was fired for pessimism. Communism had nothing to do with it."
"I got him fired," said his wife. "The only piece of real evidence produced against him was a letter I wrote to the New York Times from Pakistan."
"What did it say?"
"It said a lot of things," she said, "because I was very upset about how Americans couldn't imagine what it was like to be something else, to be something else and proud of it."
"I see."
"But there was one sentence they kept coming to again and again in the loyalty hearing," sighed Minton. "'Americans,'" he said, quoting his wife's letter to the Times, "'are forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be. It must have something to do with the vanished frontier.'"
Claire Minton's letter to the Times was published during the worst of the era of Senator McCarthy, and her husband was fired twelve hours after the letter was printed.
"What was so awful about the letter?" I asked.
"The highest possible form of treason," said Minton, "is to say that Americans aren't loved wherever they go, whatever they do. Claire tried to make the point that American foreign policy should recognize hate rather than imagine love."
 In some ways I found this passage comforting at the time. Only three years after 9/11 and most Americans were still whipped up into a "patriotic" frenzy, the height of which very much looked like McCarthyism. If you said anything negative at all about America or Americans you were at the very least given dirty looks, and often shouted down. The fact that it was self-policed for the most part made it no less oppressive and unfortunately it is easier to end laws and government behavior than mob rule. Not that they look that different anymore.

My problem is not that Americans behave badly. I mean, yes, we act like assholes half of the time, but can we at least be consistent and honest about it? Douchebags who know they are douchebags are much less annoying than those who proclaim otherwise. If we really love freedom so much, can we please for the love of whatever you want to love act like we love freedom? Because, ya'll, banning books is not an act of love or promoting freedom.

LibsNote: I can't remember if I bought this, or if it was a freebie, but I still have it, which is why I can provide you with the ISBN for my copy.
*Banned Graphic provided in part by Barefoot Liam Stock, with permission.

because it proclaims that Capitalism is not so great, and neither is religion.
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